Representative photo: students wearing protective masks at a government school in Hyderabad, March 2020. Photo: Reuters/Vinod Babu.
In an alarming display of negligence, the Union government has sharply slashed the budgetary allocation for education by Rs 6,088 crore. This has come at a time when schools and universities have remained shut for over ten months and are in desperate need of a special package to get back on track.
Education has been a prominent low-priority area for the Narendra Modi government, as is evident from the fact that it wasn’t able to fully spend the allocation specified in the 2020-2021 Union budget. While it had set aside Rs 99,312 crore for the education ministry, it could spend only Rs 85,089 crore – in a year that saw thousands of students struggling to attend online classes and had restricted access to formal education.
Despite such unprecedented exigencies, the Union government has allocated only Rs 93,224 crores for education (Rs 54873.66 crore for school education and Rs 38,350.65 crore for higher education) in the 2021-2022 budget.
Curiously, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman thought it fit this year to open more routes to privatise school education. She announced that the Union government would include a hundred government-run Sainik schools to be managed under the public-private partnership programme, and open around 750 Eklavya schools across India.
Experts have been pointing out that spending on Eklavya schools – which are single-teacher schools – instead of full-fledged facilities for children should only be a stop-gap arrangement in between the government’s efforts to build permanent education infrastructure.
“The sharp dip in the education budget only goes on to show the government’s preference for privately-funded education over the existing model of public education,” Ambarish Rai, national convenor of the Right To Education Forum advocacy collective, told The Wire. “At a time when there should have been an opportunity to invest more on public education, it has chosen to go the opposite way” .
“PPE model in public schools would mean that NGOs would effectively run the schools. We all know which NGOs would land such contracts,” he added. He also pointed out that budgetary allocations for school education has come down to Rs 31,300 crore in 2021-2022 – from Rs 36,400 crore last year.
Sitharaman’s announcement that the government would improve infrastructure in around 15,000 schools, appears to be another way to outsource the task to private players.
The dip in the education budget may also impact India’s efforts to contain the country’s COVID-19 epidemic. Official figures clearly say that only 54% schools in India have drinking water, functioning toilets and hand wash facilities. All three are essential to keep students and teachers safe and healthy.
The Right to Education Act provides for such facilities to be built in schools. However, its implementation has been subpart for many years, with 2020 being possibly the worst.
“The union government had proudly announced the New Education Policy that contained multi-layered transformations. However, successively poor allocations in the budget for education show that the government is not confident of its own model,” Rai finished.