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From food coupons to a fund to provide laptops and tablets to the poor⁠— NITI Aayog’s public policy analyst has a wishlist too

From food coupons to a fund to provide laptops and tablets to the poor⁠— NITI Aayog’s public policy analyst has a wishlist too
  • Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be presenting the Union Budget amidst unprecedented circumstances.
  • The digital progress made in health and education has not reached everyone and the gaps need to be fixed.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has also posed a risk to the battle against malnourishment and food coupons may be a way out.
There are high expectations from the Budget 2021, which comes about a year after India recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case. With the pandemic severely disrupting business as usual, the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be presenting the Union Budget amidst unprecedented circumstances.

The crisis has opened up opportunities in education and health but the new ideas have not been able to cross the social fault lines of an unequal society. So, it may be time to bridge those divides with innovative programmes like food coupons for the malnourished, and spending money to ensure that no one is left behind in all the digital progress made in health and education.

The pandemic has underscored the importance of social sector schemes

It is not all about challenges. The “new normal” has also created opportunities to build back better. One such opportunity is to prioritise and invest in what has traditionally been considered “social sectors”. One hopes that the pandemic has demonstrated beyond doubt that these so-called social sectors are, in fact, critical for economic progress and workforce productivity as well.

Of course, the budget is not the only window of opportunity for the government to implement measures for strengthening these sectors but to the extent that the budget signals priorities and sets the tone at the highest levels, it is crucial that areas like health, nutrition, education and gender equality feature prominently.

The budget must increase allocation for health as well as promote telehealth

While India has fared much better on COVID-19 management than most would expect, the outbreak has also shone a spotlight on the underlying gaps and inequities in the health system in terms of access to and quality of physical infrastructure, human resources as well as drugs and medical devices.

Further, the lockdown, which was a necessary response for gearing up the health system to respond to COVID-19, resulted in disruptions to some essential services in areas like maternal and child health, tuberculosis, and non-communicable diseases like cancer, cardiac ailments and chronic kidney disease.

India is committed to ramping up its spending on health to 2.5% of GDP by 2025 as per the National Health Policy, 2017. However, in the post-COVID scenario, the government might need to consider achieving this level of spending on health before 2025.

This will not only enable India to build a strong and resilient public health system to address the ongoing challenges faced by the population more effectively and equitably but will also ensure that the country is better prepared for such disease outbreaks in the future.

A timely increase in spending is necessary to equip the already stretched health sector to cope with new and additional challenges posed by the pandemic, including a rise in mental health and stress-related issues.

Further, the budget must emphasise initiatives for making full use of the opportunities that have emerged during the COVID era, most notably the adoption of digital health interventions, like telemedicine. The Indian government released the Telemedicine Practice Guidelines in March 2020 to enable access to remote healthcare consultations. By early December 2020, over 1 million teleconsultations had taken place through e-Sanjeevani, the Government’s telemedicine service, across 550 districts in the country.

A survey of 800 physicians conducted by Boston Consulting Group between March-May, 2020, revealed a trend of accelerated digital adoption, with 85% of clinicians using digital platforms and telemedicine during the lockdown period.

Going forward, there is tremendous scope to expand telemedicine services to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities as well as rural areas, where the unmet need for access to quality healthcare is the highest.

Nutrition sector

Nutrition is another sector which has suffered from disruptions to essential services like mid-day meals in schools and hot, cooked meals in Anganwadi Centres, on account of the pandemic.

For instance, under normal circumstances, 1.3 million Anganwadi Centres provide supplementary food to pregnant and lactating mothers as part of the Integrated Child Development Scheme. Adverse effects on livelihoods further exacerbate food and nutrition insecurity. Besides restoring programmes delivering essential nutrition services fully, the budget could also consider food purchasing assistance (in the form of coupons) for people from low-income backgrounds.

Budget must provide the infrastructure needed for the have-nots to access online education

In 2020, the government released the National Education Policy outlining several ambitious measures for transforming the education sector. It is crucial that the Budget supports the implementation of these interventions with the requisite financial allocations, in line with the overall plan to increase public spending on education to 6% of GDP from the current approximately 4.6%.

Specifically, to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19, it is essential to ensure adequate funds for enabling schools across the country to reopen with the necessary water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in place.

Additionally, steps need to be taken to bridge the digital divide. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), ownership of smartphones in student households increased significantly between 2018 and 2020. However, the report noted that only one-third of school children were pursuing online education.

Thus, while COVID-19 has undoubtedly given a fillip to the use of technology, it has also widened the digital divide, with students from underprivileged families finding it challenging to participate in online classes or access digital content.

There is, therefore, a case for the budget to make a provision, perhaps in the form of a dedicated fund, for promoting manufacturing of equipment like tablets and providing an enabling digital ecosystem targeted at students who are currently getting left behind.

The pandemic has hurt women the most both in terms of life and livelihood

Finally, across sectors, COVID has worsened gender inequality in much of the world. Research conducted by Azim Premji University suggests that the work participation rate for Indian women reduced to 5.8% in August 2020 from 9.15% in December 2019. Women have also had to bear a disproportionate burden of caregiving during the pandemic.

Contraceptive supply chains have suffered from disruptions, which could lead to an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Further, due to the confinement during the lockdown period, job losses, and absence of the usual support networks like Self-Help Groups (SHGs), instances of domestic violence are also believed to have increased over the last several months.

Additionally, economic distress could lead to parents making choices about sending only male children to school, perpetuating intergenerational inequalities with respect to the education of girls.

Restoring existing health, nutrition, and social safety programmes for girls and women in their entirety must therefore be a top priority. As of July 2020, there were around 66 Lakh SHGs formed under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission with over 70 million women members. This network of SHGs should be strengthened through credit linkages and access to digital literacy and tools to create suitable economic opportunities for women.

Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.


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