Education activists are used to being disappointed by successive Union Budgets, but say the one presented on February 1 was particularly upsetting.

At a time when the number of out-of-school children between five and 14 years of age stands at four crores, according to the 2011 census, and public and private surveys point to low learning levels among those enrolled, the Budget speech made no mention of the Right to Education Act, 2009 – which ensures free and compulsory education for all children in the age group of six to 14.

The share of education, school and higher, in the Budget remained 3.7% of gross domestic product – the 6% demanded since the 1950s still a distant dream. Within this, allocations for major education schemes barely increased. The budget for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan went up by Rs 1,000 crores – insufficient to achieve the programme’s target of universal primary education. That for the mid-day meal scheme rose by Rs 300 crores, a “nominal increase” according to the Right to Education Forum’s Ambarish Rai. Funds for teacher training programmes, the adult education programme Saakshar Bharat, and the Rasthriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan to enhance access to secondary education – all crucial for inclusion and quality – saw either minor increases or none at all.

The disappointment prompted activists from various social organisations to gather in Delhi on Monday to discuss what the Budget meant for the educational inclusion of the communities they represent – Dalits and Adivasis, the disabled, girls, Muslims and those from nomadic and denotified tribes.

Factoring in the massive education deficit as a result of decades of neglect, educationist Janki Rajan said a new target of 9% of gross domestic product was more realistic. “Also, you need to figure out how much it actually costs, per child, to run a good school,” she said.

Protiva Kundu of the think-tank Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability pointed out that the National University for Educational Planning and Administration had estimated a requirement of Rs 2,31,000 crores to meet the requirements of right to education between 2010-’11 and 2015-’16. However, of this, only Rs 1,39,071 crores had been allocated and even less (Rs 1,25,508 crores) spent. Also, the education cess that was introduced to fill the gaps in the funding of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the supporting scheme for right to education, has accounted for over 60% of its budget since 2014.

Not only have targets under the education-for-all law not been met over the years, the government’s thrust has shifted elsewhere. “For the last two years, what is adopted as education policies are web portal[s], digital learning, photograph[s] of teachers [on] notice board of schools, ICT [information and communication technology], developing of school education quality index as measures of universal quality education,” said Kundu. “Without vision and in the absence of a concrete education policy, a ‘good education budget’ would be an unrealistic expectation.”

For Dalits and Adivasis

An analysis of the Budget by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights found denial of funds to the tune of Rs 40,000 crores for Scheduled Castes and Rs 18,000 crores for Scheduled Tribes. The allocations are meant to be in proportion to the size of their populations.

Abhay Xaxa, a member of the Campaign, said that large chunks of funds under the Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan and Scheduled Tribes Sub-Plan are for education programmes. “But the schemes are dropped like relief from helicopters with little attention to how much is really reaching the children,” he said.

They require extra academic support, hostels and residential schools in Adivasi areas, resource centres that promote learning in the students’ own language. “Scholarships are a huge incentive because the entire family uses them,” he added.

The Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability in its analysis pointed out, “Budget for pre-matric scholarship for SC has gone down from Rs 495 crore in 2016-’17 [Budget estimate] to Rs 45 crore in 2017-’18 [Budget estimate].”

Xaxa said the government should “draw parents into the process and engage them”. He added, “Scheme for adult education that had a huge impact on Dalit and Adivasi families have not received any funds.”

Bharat Singh of the Delhi Right to Education Forum said nomadic and denotified tribes are arguably the worst off with no clear allocations for them. “They are not in education at all because if they go to school, they lose their income,” said Singh. “There have been many commissions and reports but no policy has emerged.”

For the disabled

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 – which brought enhanced reservation in government jobs and higher education institutes for this section of society – ensured a greater share of funds for schemes meant for its implementation. The allocation to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s Department for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities grew to Rs 855 crores in 2017-’18 from the actual expenditure of Rs 554.9 crores in 2015-’16 and the revised estimate of Rs 783.5 crores for 2016-’17.

On the flip side, Radhika Alkazi of Aarth-Astha, which works with disabled children, said the Act has “diluted the Right to Education Act” to some extent by allowing children to pick “special schools” for the disabled over inclusive neighbourhood institutions. And when the education-for-all law was amended in 2012, a third option for the severely disabled was introduced – homeschooling. Due to this policy mish-mash, she said, “the disabled are now home, getting no education despite being enrolled in schools on paper”.

To change this, Alkazi said “resources and all-round support for vulnerable groups” is required. Pointing out that the allocation for the Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme has been reduced to Rs 274.3 crores this year against last year’s revised estimate of Rs 279.3 crores, she said, “I wonder how many will get the certificate to be legally declared disabled.”

In the budget of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, funds for children with disabilities is subsumed under the inclusive education component of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. At the secondary level, it is part of the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan. “So for school level, we do not even know what the exact allocation is,” observed Alkazi.

She is also wary of the government’s proposal of introducing minimum learning outcomes for children from Classes 1 to 8, which was announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley during his Budget speech. “Our children will disappear if the same measure is used for everyone,” she said.

For Muslims

The Muslim community is also in need of more funds for education, said social groups working in this field. Despite accounting for over 14% of the country’s population, the share of Muslims in the Budget was 0.2%, said Abdul Rashid Agwan of the Institute of Policy Studies and Advocacy. The allocation for the only targeted scheme for the community – the HRD Ministry’s Madrassa Modernisation Scheme – remained unchanged at Rs 120 crores. This is practically inconsequential to the community as only 4% of Muslim children attend these institutions, Agwan pointed out. “Also, the community will take care of madrassas,” he said, adding, “The more relevant Scheme for Infrastructure Development in Minority Institutes is now defunct.” This scheme is aimed at augmenting infrastructure in private aided/unaided minority institutions.

The other ministry from which the community receives assistance, mostly in the shape of schemes, is the Ministry of Minority Affairs. On this front, allocations for pre-matric, post-matric and merit-cum-means scholarships saw an increase but funds for the Maulana Azad National Fellowship for Minority Students went down from Rs 120 crores to Rs 100 crores.

With the infrastructure scheme gone, Agwan said, the community could look to the ministry’s Multi-sectoral Development Programme for funds to set up schools. But the drawback here is that the location of the institution would be decided by the district magistrate or block development office. “The school may be set very far from where the community is,” he said.

Some also pointed to the fact that the community may be deterred from taking initiative and building its own schools by the “communal environment” in some parts of the country.

For the girl child

If there has been a significant increase in Budget allocations for a certain sector, it has been for schemes targeting girl students. The 2017-’18 Budget estimate for the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme doubled to Rs 200 crores from Rs 100 crores last year. Protiva Kundu of the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability pointed out that the 2016-’17 revised estimate had been just Rs 43 crores.

Also, the Budget estimate for the National Scheme of Incentives to Girls for Secondary Education increased seven-fold from Rs 45 crores in 2016-’17 to Rs 320 crores this year.

However, the state of education of girl children remains dismal, with no amount of tweaking with the Budget over the years having had much of an impact. “Thirty-three per cent of girls drop out and that has been the figure for some years,” said Suman Sachdev of Care India. “Girls within Dalit, disabled communities are doubly marginalised and there is little effort or resources to bring the society and education together.”