19 Feb 2020 15:09 IST

Ignoring human potential is a glaring omission in the Budget

The biggest gap is from the perspective of the most vulnerable citizens — children with disabilities

Let’s imagine your eight-year-old child or niece picking up the newspaper to read an article on the Budget. What would she understand? First of all, more than half of the eight-year-olds in this country would not be able to read beyond the first sentence of this article.

Let’s pause on that fact: Unlike your niece, every second child you meet in India will not be able to read a simple account from a storybook.

We also know that this other child has missed the golden window of opportunity of the first 1,000 days of her life. Roughly, one million neuron connections are formed every second in a young child’s brain. The return on investment in human capital is 4 to 9 per cent to the economy from a high-quality caregiver and school readiness programmes focused on the first 1,000 days — the first three years of a child’s life. And it is unlikely that a child who cannot read by the age of eight, or in Std 3, will catch up with the academic demands of her schooling life.

How does this Budget address this glaring gap in unfulfilled human potential?

It is commendable that there is a marginal increase in the allocation to social sector schemes that affect the first 1,000 days of a child’s life: POSHAN Abhiyan for nutrition, Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) for maternal health, and Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY) for universal health coverage. From the health perspective, the three schemes ensure that the primary caregiver and the child are set up for success.

Insufficient outlay

The National Education Mission also received a 7 per cent increase, which will hopefully reflect in increased outlay for foundational learning goals in primary schools. The overall Central allocations to the health, education and social services sectors have been increased in this year’s Budget. The topline message to our eight-year-olds: Yes, there is more investment in your future in the 2020 Budget. Look forward to improved health, learning, and joy in your classroom.

However, accounting for rising inflation, the slowing economy and the revised estimates of the 2019-20 Budget, the increased expenditure of 5-10 per cent is insufficient to improve the government’s capacity significantly to deliver on the opportunity of the first 1000 days. Due to limitations in delivery capacities of States within the social sector, an underspending of 5-10 per cent across Centrally sponsored schemes is the average difference between budgeted and revised estimates.

The usual delivery capacities include identifying target families, validating their eligibility and releasing their entitlements in a timely manner. The message to our eight-year-old girl: We spent ₹10 less on you last year and we will promise to spend that amount saved this year. Do not plan to grow into new shoes and books. We can’t afford them for you in 2020!

Most vulnerable

However, the biggest miss is from the perspective of the most vulnerable citizens — children with disabilities. Above 15 per cent of the world’s population is estimated to have disabilities. The estimates are likely to be higher in the Indian context, given the social and administrative barriers persons with disabilities face in screening and identifying themselves.

Apart from social barriers and the effects on labour force participation, delayed intervention in the case of disabilities increases the burden on the welfare budget for the family and the government. According to the World Bank disability framework report, the costs of exclusion due to disability are estimated to be 3-7 per cent of the GDP. The message to an eight-year-old child with a disability: We don’t see you as yet, and do not have enough resources to provide adequate care and support for you. Good luck for 2021 though!

It is high time we adopted an universal design principle of planning our civic life around the needs of the most vulnerable citizens — toddlers in the first 1,000 days of their life with an even sharper focus on children with disabilities. What is inclusive design for them will be inclusive for all of us. Let’s invest in their untapped potential in early years with a fierce urgency.

The clock is already ticking for all the young citizens in India.

(The writer is CEO and Founder, Indus Action. Views are personal.)