Bread, Butter, Protection: Do Our Children Get the Best?

 

By Melvil Pereira

‘Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.’ Thus ends the preamble of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, signed in 1959. It is now 57 years since these words were penned. This begs the question: are we paying our debt here in Meghalaya? Are we as individuals giving the best, and does the Government of Meghalaya and our elected representatives, provide the best of funds, finances and facilities to our children on our behalf?

One certain way of answering these questions is to look at the state budget and see how much money has been allocated for the welfare of children. Such an exercise (the Budget for Children or BfC) throws light on the commitment of the state to its children. The BfC is an attempt to separate amount allocated for all those programmes and schemes that benefit the children in a state from the total state budget. It seeks to monitor the extent to which the promises made by a government are translated into policies and programmes that genuinely protect the rights and welfare of children.

Such an exercise was undertaken in Meghalaya by HAQ, New Delhi, and NESRC, Guwahati, for the years 2012-13 to 2016-17, the first ever five-year trend analysis of the BfC in the State. It threw light on the allocations and spending for children in the state in the light of its indicators and outcomes.

If a five year analysis of the state budget is any indicator of the Government of Meghalaya’s commitment to children, then we are in for a shock! Considering that the child population (those below 18 years old) account for nearly half of the population of Meghalaya (46.5%), on an average a paltry 6.14% of the state budget has been allocated for their benefit during the past five years. What is disturbing is that the share of funds given to children has fallen, dropping from 9.51% in 2014-15 to 4.69% in 2015-16. It further decreased to 4.25% in 2016-17. This is disturbing.

While the average share of 6.14% is disappointingly low, the sharp fall to 4.25% in 2016-17 belies belief. This sharp decrease may be part of the fallout of the 14th Finance Commission Report on fiscal federalism. What is clear is that, with the fiscal devolution taking place, the greater burden of raising resources for children is shifting to the states, which has led to a fall in allocations for health and education. It would seem that the states are failing to keep up.

The report by HAQ and NESRC analysed the budget for children in four sectors: education, development, health and protection. While the lion’s share of the BfC was allocated to the education sector (82.19%), the development sector received most of the remainder – 14.15% of the share. The health and protection sector were left with merely 3.02% and 0.64% of the total share of children. The amount allotted to protecting children is a shockingly small fraction of a fraction and the amount afforded to the health of our young does not speak well of the State’s priorities.

The schemes and programmes of the protection sector are interventions aimed at creating a safe environment for all children. They specifically address the issues of child labour, violence against children, trafficking, giving care to children who are physically or mentally challenged, on the streets, or trapped in the punitive judicial system. According to the Police Department of Meghalaya, there was a 191.11% increase in crimes against children from 2012 to 2015. And these are only the reported cases, only the tip of an iceberg that hides its gross self from view. The abuse of an innocent girl by an MLA is a clear instance of the breakdown of laws and regulations that protect the rights of children, of a system as rotten as its legislators, of the innocent corrupted by the corrupt. And the Government is allotting precisely 0.039% of its total budget to protect children!

Against such a rising trend of violence against children, mushrooming at the very heart of the capital, the thin slice of BfC allocated to protection sector is astoundingly deplorable. Such a negligible allocation is indicative of the negligence afforded to protecting children, to providing a safe space for them to grow, to develop, to breath, ensuring many do not achieve what they ought to in life.

The health status of children in Meghalaya is not encouraging, either, despite the recently released data of National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS-4, 2015-16) which does show some improvement in various health indicators. The infant mortality rate (IMR) at present has dropped to 30 per 1000 live births from 44 in NFHS-3 (2005-06). Similarly, the mortality rate of infants under five (U5MR) is now only 40, while it was 70 ten years ago. On all other health indicators Meghalaya has recorded positive developments during the past decade. While the overall picture shows growth in health indicators since NFHS-3, the disaggregation of the data by area shows a stark urban-rural divide. For instance, the IMR for the State is 30, with urban areas recording a rate as low as 15. In rural areas, the rate is 32. In layman’s terms, at the moment, if you live in a village, your children are twice as likely to die before growing up as the children of families who live in a town or city. Similarly, a parallel situation exists in the U5MR, the rate of which is 40 for the State, 20 for the urban and 43 for the rural! According to NFHS-4, as much as 48% of children between 6-59 months are anaemic. Similarly, 56% of women aged 15-49 years are anaemic.

Against the appalling backdrop of such a dismal health record, it is incumbent on the Government to increase its allocations substantially for children. Recent research emphasises that ‘nutrition in the first two or three years of a child’s life has a lasting impact on its development; care given in later years, including freshly cooked meals at school, cannot undo the setback caused by neglect during this foundational phase’. It is noted that nearly 90% of a child’s brain growth takes placed before he or she reaches five years of age and therefore the need for nourishing the youngest of the young cannot be overemphasised. Apart from nutrition, other key areas requiring intervention in the health sector are access to antenatal care and postnatal care, a reduction of the high levels of anaemia among women, and immunisation.

While the low allocation of funds for children is disturbing, what is of greater concern however is the under-spending of the meagre resources available. The Union Government’s constant complaint is that state governments do not utilise the funds allocated for various schemes. For instance, Meghalaya shows an average under-spending of 32.44% of its BfC during 2012-13 to 2016-17. In 2014-15, more than half (over 56%) of the allocations have remained unspent, or at least unspent on children… Such a trend of under-spending raises serious questions about the implementation of schemes and programmes meant for the welfare of children. Why is this money not spent, and where is it going? If it’s not going to fill the stomachs of infants, whose pockets does it fill?

            When there is low allocation of funds for children, and worse still, when there is underutilisation of allocated funds, what could be the way forward? One of the ways of facing the challenge could be to incorporate a separate section for children in the state budget, just like the section on gender budgeting. In the Union Budget, the separate budget for children is shown in Statement 22; the Government of Meghalaya too can have such a statement. This will enable the Government to focus on children, the half of its population without a vote, bring all departments on board and track progress. Moreover, an external watchdog might be necessary to monitor the prolific under-spending, to ensure that the funds promised are given, and to ensure that Meghalaya gives to its children the best it has to give.

(Melvil Pereira is Director of North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati. He can be contacted at melvillesj@gmail.com)

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