Nine-year-old Shaiba Parveen of Topsia, Kolkata, sat inside her ramshackle hut recently ravaged by Cyclone Amphan, waiting to go back to her school. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she told us the name of her school with an excited squeal: “Topsia Friends Society. I used to go there every day to study, meet my friends.”

Shaiba hasn’t gone to school since the lockdown. Her parents are daily-wage labourers who have had a tough time feeding their family of four since March, their finances first ravaged by the Covid-19 induced lockdown, thereafter by Cyclone Amphan. The sole mobile phone in the family is taken by Shaiba’s brother, when he goes to work. So all the nine-year-old can do is wait that school begins soon, else she might be married off and have to bid goodbye to education forever.

The aftermath of Covid-19 in education has been talked about a lot of us working in the sector. Research by several groups including ours have found that children like Shaiba are likely to be the worst-affected demographic: girls in pre-teens in families that can ill-afford to feed them, who are likely to be whisked away from school towards domestic care work at home, or marriage, or worse, be trafficked. There have not been too many moments in the history of independent India where we have felt the need for an amp up of government funding towards education.

Only, instead of increasing the allocation for education, Budget 2021 has done the exact opposite.

Lower allocation

The budget allocated for Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan for 2021-’22 – Rs 31,050 crore – is far less than the Rs 36,400 crore allocated for 2019-’20 as well as the expenditure in 2019-’20 of Rs 32,376.52 crore. Even the allocation for the overall School Education Budget under National Education Mission (Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan and Teacher Training & Adult Education) of Rs 31, 300 crore is less than the previous year’s allocation of Rs 38, 860.

Instead of increasing allocations to strengthen an inclusive public education system, the government is paving the way for privatisation and Public Private Partnership model in education. It also makes us wonder, where the government hopes to find money on strengthening schools for the New Education Policy 2020. Worse, it will hurt children – particularly those from poor, marginalised communities adding to the already increasing number of out-of-school children in India. A disproportionate number of those are likely to be girls.

The Kothari Commission’s recommendation in 1968 that 6% of the GDP should be allocated on education has for all these years been a far cry from actual numbers. Till date, the education budget has varied between 3%-4%.

The National Education Policy in 2020 reiterated this recommendation but failed to give a roadmap to it. The Economic Survey of India 2020-’21 shows that expenditure on education as a proportion of GDP has remained below 3%.

A girl in Maharashtra, who has missed her online classes due to a lack of internet facilities, listens to pre-recorded lessons over loudspeakers. Credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

The Right to Education is a fundamental right. Even before this Budget, a lot of work was remaining to make this right truly accessible. There were 9 lakh vacant teaching positions in elementary schools and 1.1 lakh in secondary schools that needed to be filled. There were infrastructural gaps with relation to drinking water, functional toilets, hand washiing facilites (46% schools do not have these facilities) that needed to be addressed. Only upon fulfilling these deficits can the Right to Education be said to be implemented.

Covid-19 has only brought in an additional layer of requirements – from out-of-school children needed to be brought back to schools, to the additional needs of migrant children who will be joining government schools because their parents cannot educate them in private schools anymore.

The total orientation of this Budget is towards disinvestment, commercialisation and privatisation. There has been a concerted effort to do that in the previous years also, but that time there was much stronger resistance from the unions. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, labour laws have also been modified, and so many of these resistance movements have also been weakened, as also the opposition parties and human rights groups.

Only the farmers’ movement has been able to push back against the privatisation and corporatisation policies of this government.

Pushed out of education

With the push for private education and the lack of resources in public education, it will be increasingly hard for the thousands of poor kids in our country to access education. Thousands of kids will go out of the ambit of education, in particular girls, because of a series of issues related to patriarchy, poverty, early marriage and trafficking.

A Common School System, which ensures a uniform quality of education to all the children in the country is very important especially for children of migrant labourers, and those from Dalit, and other backward groups, and most importantly, girls. Many girls have been left out of the formalised education space. Even now that the return to school is being planned, we estimate that 20%-30% children will be left out of schools.

In such a context, operationalisation of the Gender Inclusion Fund (as promised in the New Education Policy 2020) is essential. Instead, funds for the National Scheme for Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education were drastically cut to Rs 1 crore – from the Rs 110 crore in the previous Budget.

It is time for all of us working in the sector to emphasise and push for the rights of these children. Without that, we are in danger of reversing all the achievements we have made in the context of the Right to Education.

The author is the National Convenor, Right to Education Forum.