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How neglect of education and healthcare has put lives of millions of children at risk

India ranks the poorest among its extended neighbourhood when it comes to spending on education and healthcare, which can come in the way of its ambition to be a global economic powerhouse.

May 18, 2020 / 10:17 AM IST

India is facing its biggest and most frightening health emergencies in recent memory. The country has extended the almost two-month-long lockdown by another two weeks, though with fewer restrictions, to prevent the spread of the rampaging coronavirus that is known to have infected at least 96,169 and killed 3,029 people.

With infections rising at a faster clip, India’s healthcare system, which is far from adequate, will we tested by the virus that has overwhelmed even the best facilities in the world.

Warning bells have been ringing for India’s healthcare system for a while now. Health and education are two factors that contribute to the development of a country. Both, in many ways, are inseparable in formative years.

For instance, you may provide children nutrition but fail to educate them on hygiene, which is a matter of life and death in times of a pandemic like the coronavirus. You may also not be able to teach children the difference between a good touch and a bad touch or educate them on gender discrimination. These are basic rules that fall halfway between education and health.

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The absence of education along with a lack of nutrition and health-saving measures ends up maiming future generations. The two can’t be looked at separately, at least during primary education years.  The separation comes later.

That could in many ways explain why governments may have and continue to risk the health and life of millions of children in India, year after year, which, in turn, will come in the way of India’s ambition of emerging as a global economic powerhouse.

Successive governments have chosen to spend more on votebanks and in pushing policies that have benefitted a favoured few than on quality education and healthcare.

But how does one arrive at the idea that the future of millions of children could be at stake? The answer lies in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2019.

India doesn’t fare too well on UNDP’s Human Development Index, a measure of countries’ social and economic development. It looks at life expectancy, education and per capita income, yardsticks that define the quality of life.

India is almost 30 points away from the highest scorer, and 27 points separate it from the worst. India’s standing reinforces fears that many of the premature deaths in the country were because the government did not set aside enough funds for human development.

Education and health are two key factors in human development. Education is important to lead a good, informed life but it will count for little in the face of poor health, which is known to sap physical and mental capabilities.

Poor spending on education and healthcare is also the reason for India performing badly on the Human Capital Index (HCI), a more sophisticated ranking devised by the World Bank in 2018.

India ranks the poorest in its extended neighbourhood. Only Pakistan is behind India, which is ranked a poor 115 on the index. Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, which are much smaller economies when compared to India, have done much better. Even Myanmar, which was under military rule until 2011, ranks higher, at 107.

These countries have moved ahead of India because they have continued to invest in education and health. India despite being the world’s fifth-largest economy continues to flounder on these two vital human development indicators.

The Modi government has launched an ambitious health insurance scheme under Ayushman Bharat but there not enough doctors and administrators to ensure that the programme is properly implemented. Without these people, Ayushman Bharat could end up as a financial dud despite the government’s best intentions.

India also has to invest more in medical education to overcome the demand and skill gap.

In light of the UNDP statement mentioned above, India should bring out a white paper, showing how many children and youth died because of misgovernance and policy failures.

On February 11, former ICICI Bank chairman N Vaghul urged the government not to neglect public education. He also pointed out that the government wasn’t spending on education even though it had allocated funds for it.

“From the 2017-18 annual financial audit of government finances by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), it is clear that Rs 94,036 crore of proceeds of education cess collected over the years by the government is lying unutilised in the Consolidated Fund of India,” a media report quoted Vaghul as saying.

India needs to understand how it has erred by not paying attention to education. Two other articles in this series will focus on education, highlighting where policy failures have occurred and the steps that need to be taken to improve education, thereby safeguarding the future of millions of children.

(This is the first article in a three-part series.)

The author is a consulting editor with Moneycontrol
RN Bhaskar
first published: May 18, 2020 10:17 am
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