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Education and employment are admittedly the two sectors worst hit by the pandemic, but the government, presenting the budget, seems not to have realized this fully. The budget has gone overboard with ‘digital’ without realizing that digital can only supplement and cannot replace fundamental requirements. It is also ironical that despite all evidence showing that digital is not the solution for equitable education, what we get from this budget is e-Vidya, developed for delivery via internet, mobile phones, TV, radio and digital teachers. This completely overlooks the fact that access to IT-based education was one of the most severe limitations that children faced during the last two years of school closures.

In one four-state study with schoolchildren, my team and I found that less than one third of them had access to internet for a variety of reasons: from one phone for the entire family, controlled by the men of the household, to the unaffordability of the internet packages. A multi-state study by Azim Premji University reported that children have not only failed to learn new concepts, but have also forgotten 60-90% of what they had learnt earlier.

Our schools have received radios, computers and TVs in the past, but it has not changed learning for children from deprived environments. The challenge lies in providing adequate number of teachers and teaching-learning resources, including digital, and making institutional inclusiveness non-negotiable. The budget does not do anything in this regard.

The budget allocation for education has gone up from 93,224 crore to 1.04 trillion, with the ratio of school and higher education remaining unchanged at 60:40. This may mean a tiny increase, if adjusted for inflation.

Learning loss has not been limited to schools alone. The ‘Covid-19 Learning Loss in Higher Education’ survey by TeamLease reported students’ estimated loss of learning in India at 40-60%, which is twice the estimated learning loss in G7 countries. There is consensus among experts that it may take up to three years to bridge this gap. Again, what the budget has to offer is a digital university. There is indeed a space for an open or digital university in combination with physical universities, but this is not a solution in a post-covid-19 era where students have suffered due to isolation, absence of peer-interaction, and discursive learning opportunities is not only baffling, but also smacks of a design to slowly weaken our public universities. Our young people from deprived background not only learn subjects in colleges and universities, but also create networks that help them compensate for their lack of social capital. We need greater investment in creating such places.

Most public universities and school systems face an acute shortage of teachers. This is an area where enhanced budgetary support could also mean more employment opportunities. One of our recent studies using the multiplier and social accounting matrix approach for Karnataka found that public spending in education had one of the highest redistributive effects on income and, in turn, on expenditure.

The budget relies on promoting private capital investments and entrepreneurship to create employment opportunities such as high allocation for capital expenditure (nearly 35%), emphasis on infrastructure projects, and credit facilities for MSMEs. It is true that if these succeed in boosting private investments, additional employment opportunities can be generated. But in reality, this needs complementary measures to ensure livelihood security, which has not received much attention.

Many argue that India’s unemployment rate of 9-10% does not reflect the dimension of low employment rates. This is especially true for women, as evidenced in their lower rates in workforce participation. The budget as a tool could bring measures that encourages women to join the workforce. This budget misses it entirely. This issue is linked to the larger one of gender relations, enhanced mobility for girls and women, and social norms—which did not see any mention in the budget. Digital alone cannot solve these problems.

Views are personal.

Jyotsna Jha Director, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies

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