About 44% of Indian children under five are underweight and 48% are stunted. Shockingly, India is home to 42% of the world’s underweight children and 31% of its stunted children.

Children represent not only India’s future, but are also integral to securing India’s present. Yet, development indicators continue to show slow progress towards securing their welfare and delivering their basic rights.

The very survival of over a million newborns in the country every year continues to be at risk. Prospects for girls in particular are getting grimmer, with successive Census figures revealing a declining sex ratio. About 44% of Indian children under five are underweight and 48% are stunted. Shockingly, India is home to 42% of the world’s underweight children and 31% of its stunted children. Over half of India’s children are either not attending school or dropping out before Class 8.

So in 2020, when the average Indian is likely to be 29 years old; when we hope to reap the so-called ‘demographic dividend’ and traverse the high growth path well into the year 2040, on whom are we banking? Nutritional deprivation and low educational attainment hardly make for a ‘magical generation’ on whose shoulders India will attain super power status.

While a number of progressive legislation pertaining to basic education, food security and health have either been enacted or drafted, the acute need for a significant increase in public spending on these essential sectors has been somewhat glossed over in the recent Union Budgets. In fact, the direction has  clearly been towards a conservative fiscal policy that strongly advocates the compression of public expenditure, one of the consequences of which seems to be the Central Government’s growing inclination towards promoting a greater role for private providers in social sectors. The health sector is a prime example, where 29% is from the public sector and 71% is private sector spending, according to WHO’s Global Health Expenditure Database.

Nearly every fifth child in the world lives in India today. There are about 43 crore children in the age group of 0-18 years, with 16 crore in the 0-6 age group. It would be worthwhile to note that India’s total public spending every year on social sectors (i.e. combined budgetary spending by the Centre and States on sectors like, education, health, water and sanitation, nutrition, etc.) continues to be less than 7 per cent of the GDP. And, children (i.e., all persons up to the age of 18 years) constitute about 42 per cent of the country’s population. Given the fact that many of the outcome indicators show persisting deficits, both the proportion and the magnitude of the child budget appears grossly inadequate. Under-investment in health, development, protection and education will only serve to widen income gaps and perpetuate inequality, both of which will impede national efforts to meet important development targets.

The magnitude of the Child Budget within the Union Budget, i.e., the aggregate outlay for child-specific schemes as a proportion of total budget outlay by the Union government, stood at 4.76 per cent in 2012-13 (BE) as against 4.51 per cent (BE) in 2011-12. The 2011-12 (RE) moved marginally to 4.58 per cent. The greater concern is that if one looks at the decadal pattern, we find that from 2001 till 2005-06 the Child Budget was stuck at a meagre 2 per cent of the total budget. The jump to 4 per cent came in 2005-06 and was almost entirely due to the significant increases in allocations under the ICDS scheme; and, one is familiar with the efficacy of fund utilisation under the ICDS, which is undergoing a makeover once again! Since 2005, the allocations have remained at 4 per cent.

As always, the share allocated to the protection sector remains the lowest. Despite recognition of protection of children in the Eleventh Five Year Plan and reaffirmation in the Working Group Report, Ministry of Women and Child Development for the Twelfth Plan, there was an 18 per cent fall in allocation in 2012-13 over the previous year.

One cannot justify poor or low allocation towards the health, education, protection and development of children on either the lack of resources or macroeconomic policies. Although results may not appear as immediately tangible as when funding is provided for service units such as clinics or new school facilities, the long-term gains should be far greater and the positive impact on children’s well being observed much sooner. Cutting across sectoral issues, early intervention and prevention is the foundation stone of children’s welfare, and investing in children has a positive impact across the life cycle. Providing for children’s safety, health and education in the present will equip them to lead fulfilled lives as citizens, parents and workers in the future. Long-term inadequate spending and poor planning is bound to catch up with India’s economy at some point.

The Twelfth Five Year Plan is committed to faster, sustainable and more inclusive growth.  The Approach Paper also reaffirms that “The Twelfth Plan must make children an urgent priority”. But what next? Adequate resources and budgetary provisions should be made to back the paradigm shift and mandate of the Twelfth Plan for making growth more inclusive and sustainable. We need to take the Twelvth Five Year Plan (2013-2018) as a great opportunity to reinforce children at the centre of planning, delivery of services, and realisation of rights. There has to be a national effort to realise the demographic dividend. Macro-economic decisions that ultimately expand or shrink the total budget are to be studied with care as they often determine how much one can ultimately invest in children-related programmes. It is only then that we can say we truly have a long-term vision and are truly investing in the future.

Puja Marwaha, CEO, CRY

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