A seven-year old girl was raped outside her NDMC school on 28 February, the same day that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced the union budget for 2013-14. The rape was a timely -- though grim -- reminder of the abuse meted out to lakhs of children on a routine basis across India. A National Child Abuse Study, 2007, conducted by Save the Children, UNICEF and the Ministry of Women and Child Development had estimated that two out of every three and 55 per cent of all children are physically and sexually abused every year. The lack of recent government data on the issue betrays the level of seriousness with which the Government treats child victims of physical and sexual abuse. And, it is this attitude that marks this year’s budget for children that does precious little more than paying lip service to the children who are in the most need of state protection.

The shocking story of rape of a Class II student who was picked up from outside her school has opened a Pandora’s Box out of which the repugnant facts on children’s lives have risen to hold a mirror to Indian society. While the Indian growth story gives us much to cheer about, it is marred by stories of early marriage, trafficking for sexual exploitation, child labour, missing children, abandoning of children, forced migration etc. Even though only specific instances catch the national attention, child abuse in its various forms has become increasingly rampant — as many as 5.19 lakh children are engaged in the workplace (NSSO 2009-10); another 7.5 million have neither featured in numbers on child labour nor do they attend school (NCPCR 2009). Furthermore, according to a Save the Children census in 2010, the national capital alone has 51,000 children on the streets in extremely vulnerable conditions. They don’t have food to eat, access to clean drinking water or any means of fleeing the grave abuse they face every day.

This year, even though there have been major increases in spending on health and nutrition as well as education, child protection has once again received step-motherly treatment. The total spending on schemes that promote child rights has been abysmally low, according to the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, a think-tank based in New Delhi.

So despite the increase in the budget for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the total child budget as a proportion of the total union budget has seen a decrease from 4.8 per cent last year to 4.6 per cent this year. It has been noted that regardless of the yearly increases and decreases in the allocations for child budget, the Government’s own Periodic Report on the Convention on the Rights of the Child shows that child protection has been the least of the Government’s concerns, with spending as little as 0.06 per cent of the union budget in the preceding years.

In continuation with past trends, within the budget allocated for children, child protection had the smallest share of 1 per cent and shockingly the total outlay for the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) has been reduced by Rs. 100 crores this year or 25 per cent of its total budget. This will be a major setback to the only national scheme that provides a seemingly comprehensive child protection scheme as it is fully funded by the Centre.

The Planning Commission Working Group on Child Rights for the 12 Five Year Plan recommended Rs. 5,300 crores for the operationalisation of child protection programmes over the Plan period and the Finance Minister’s proposal of Rs. 300 crores for ICPS is nowhere near the Planning Commission’s estimate. The government has drawn up this decrease to the non-utilisation of the money allocated to states but in providing this reasoning has failed to understand that ICPS has set down some unrealistic norms such as low salaries for trained counsellors and social workers. Very recently, the government has said that it is keen to completely abolish child labour up to the age of 14 years in line with the Right to Education Act which assures free and compulsory education up to the same age. The National Child Labour Project, which mainstreams child labourers into formal schooling, has received a substantial hike of 33.3 per cent -- but despite the hike there is no clarity on how the government plans to achieve its stated aims because of the overlap between NCLP and the bridge schools under SSA (that have been set-up ostensibly for the same reasons). This year, Mr. Chidambaram, avoided making any mention in his budget speech of how he planned to address this issue, which, apart from being important in itself, is also critical from the perspective of the government’s RtE commitments.

Given the overall thrust, it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine the short shrift that children have received once more at the hands of the country’s Finance Minister. The potential demographic dividend has been once again ignored because of misplaced priorities – the government plans to spend Rs. 2.03 trillion on defence!

Given the increasing cases of child abuse and violence -- both in urban and rural India -- we need to urgently build and promote various monitoring, rescue, and rehabilitation systems and structures. Every year, the casual manner in which the government finances children’s programmes never keeps up with total budget increments and this, sadly, indicates the lack of consideration that the government has towards the protection and care of India’s children. Instead of giving us hope for child protection, the budget does a grave disservice to vulnerable children across the country by decreasing the proportion spent of the total child budget on child protection.

The government has indeed lost another opportunity to rewrite the futures of many children like the seven-year-old who have nowhere to go and no one to depend on except the Indian government, which has now clearly developed a reputation of letting children down.

Shailey Hingorani (s.hingorani@savethechildren.in) is Advocacy Coordinator with Save the Children

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