Investing in a strong public education system is the backbone of a country.

This was evident in the way countries like the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden and even China which opened schools in the midst of the pandemic. The school re-openings in these countries, simply revealed infrastructure strong enough to withstand all the new changes brought about by Covid-19, which in turn showed consistently higher levels of investment on education.

Disproportionate effects

Worldwide, governments have endeavoured to minimise country-wide closures – down from 190 countries at the peak in April 2020, to 30 countries now – in favour of partial and/or local closures. Schools are now fully open in 101 countries.

However, in India, not only are schools closed for primary and upper primary classes, but Budget 2021 has also revealed the real intent of the government on education, which leans towards privileging children belonging to a particular class of society.

Some of us in India (through networks like the Right To Education Forum) and globally, are protesting to prioritise education – which is a global common good – in the pandemic-recovery programmes.

Many studies undertaken to study the impact of the pandemic reveal that children have been differentially affected by the pandemic. Children from poorer sections of the society have been further marginalised due to lack of digital devices and difficulty in comprehending their lessons via online classes.

While 24% of Indians own a smartphone, only 11% of households possess any type of computer, which could include desktop computers, laptops etc. The most affected are children from Dalit, Adivasi and other vulnerable backgrounds including girls.

Tech companies are looking for a big opportunity to expand their business, which is expected to increase to $18 billion by the year 2022. Further, only 54% of schools are equipped with water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.

Budget 2021 mentioned long-term growth as its focus, without talking about the crisis the children are reeling under due to the pandemic. Further, if we look at allocation on education in the Budget it is highly worrying as it mentions some random 15,000 schools to be developed as model schools and some new 100 Sainik schools.

Such a fragmented approach completely fails to address the burning needs of the 15,35,610 schools and 27 crore children of the country. It also sidesteps the talk of 6% GDP allocation in education, as mentioned by the National Education Policy 2020.

Shortfall in allocation

On the contrary, this Budget’s allocation has been even lower than the previous year by 6% (Rs 6,000 crore less than the previous Budget) which comprises of only 0.42% of GDP and 1.27 % expenditure of the Union Budget. The demand from people’s organisations, networks have been 10% of the expenditure of Union Budget on education.

With this massive gap between the actual demand and Budget allocation the difference between what the millions of children want and what has been actually provided for them.

During the pandemic, children have not been able to follow their classes regularly due to the digital divide which is also embedded in class and gender divide. Teachers have not been receiving their salaries – the worst case being that of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi school teachers.

School students in Dandwal village in Maharashtra. Credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

Teachers in Delhi went on a strike in January whatever classes children were attending online (mostly through WhatsApp) were suspended due to the strike. There was no media coverage on the working conditions of the teachers in Delhi. During the closure of schools, teachers have been engaged in all odd jobs besides uploading worksheets in WhatsApp groups as also distributing Covid-19 relief, testing and the like.

The National Education Policy has some good proposals for teacher development such as introducing merit-based scholarships in rural areas for outstanding students to enter the teaching profession and a four-year integrated BEd degree as minimum degree qualification for teaching.

It talks of halting excessive teacher transfers and strengthening of Teacher Eligibility Tests to inculcate better test material (in terms of content and pedagogy). It also talks of decent service conditions such as safe infrastructure, working toilets, clean drinking water, clean and attractive spaces, electricity, internet, libraries, sports and recreational resources, greater autonomy in choosing aspects of pedagogy and teaching and opportunities for self-improvement and latest innovations.

The reality, however, is woefully different. Government and municipal teachers are treated as the lowest government servants and overburdened with many non-teaching activities because of which they are hardly there in the classroom.

During school closures on account of the pandemic, the children needed their teachers more than ever. However, in many situations, teachers were busy doing odd jobs other than engaging with children. Girls have suffered worst due to the long alienation from the school system and engagement with teachers, especially female teachers.

They have been pushed to the private spaces which strictly ascribes gender roles. National Education Policy 2020 mentions a Gender Inclusive Fund which was most critical for girl’s education amidst the pandemic. However, instead of additional funding and prioritising education, the reverse has been found in this Budget.

The Budget has also failed to invest enough to restore the classroom processes, resume schooling processes, develop teachers and similar areas, giving due consideration to the tradeoffs of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many schools are in a dilapidated condition due to a complete closure for almost 10 months now. Besides maintaining Covid-19 protocol also demands additional funding. This has been globally the situation and more than 100 countries today have toed the line to prioritise education. However in India sadly, growth is imagined without investing in basic education of children of the country that is their fundamental right. Incidentally, last year happened to be the 10th year of implementation of RTE Act 2009 that universalised elementary education in India.

The author is Assistant Professor at the Council for Social Development and Core Group member of RTE Forum.