Ever since the Union Budget 2020 was presented by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Parliament, several debates on the good, bad and ugly of the budget have been organised by television channels. Many articles analysing the budget have been published by leading newspapers and magazines, and numerous messages and memes commenting on its positives and negatives have been posted on social media. This may create an impression in readers minds that people in India are highly budget literate. Are they?
With burning enthusiasm and great curiosity, I tried to discuss the current budget with some undergraduate students, and I was disappointed as most of them showed no interest in budget issues, proved to have inadequate knowledge, and thought that the budget was a mere annual exercise.
Let us assume that a survey is to be conducted to assess the budget literacy level of teachers and students at educational institutions. How many of them will be able to define the term budget, and understand and explain the terms such as balanced budget, surplus budget, deficit budget, service tax, direct tax, indirect tax, income tax, alternative budget, and so on? How many of them will be able to debate budget-related issues and critically comment on the union budget? I am sure that the survey results will show that the budget quotient of most of the teachers and students will be critically low.
How important is budget literacy education? Why is it important to incorporate it into school curricula? The main objective of budget education is to enable students to understand the basics of any public budget and the fiscal policy objectives and measures of governments, and to encourage them to become responsible citizens.
In order to achieve this goal, students should be educated about the importance of the budget and encouraged to critically look at its various aspects and comment on them. They should know what taxes are, whether it is important to pay taxes, how they contribute to the countrys economy, whether the allocation for the education and the health sectors in the budget is adequate, whether the budget is development oriented, and so on. It is also important to help students enhance their knowledge of government revenues and expenditures, fiscal policy, economic competence and civic awareness.
In 2015, the World Bank reviewed global trends in budget literacy. The study revealed that budget literacy has been incorporated into the school curricula of 34 countries. It is unfortunate that budget literacy, budget education and alternative budget are unfamiliar terms and alien concepts for most teachers and students in India.
Budget awareness and literacy can be promoted in many ways. At the school level (classes IX and X), budget literacy can be incorporated into the curricula by introducing a few interesting, informative and thought-provoking lessons on budget related topics. During the process, students become familiar with many budget-related terms and concepts.
Schools and colleges can conduct quiz and essay contests and organise discussions and debates, and thus help students enhance their knowledge. They can also be given stimulating activities such as reviewing budgets and writing letters to the editor or articles to demonstrate their critical thinking skills.
Educational institutions can invite apolitical economists or persons knowledgeable in budget-related issues to deliver talks on the budget and initiate healthy discussions and debates.
A few years ago, I discussed the highlights of the budget with the members of the Civil Service Aspirants Club of an engineering college in Chennai. Each student was given a copy of the highlights of the Union Budget published by The Hindu. It was quite a fruitful discussion and the students were asked to discuss and debate various aspects of the budget. They looked at the budget critically and raised some important questions. During the two-hour session, I introduced the concept of alternative budget and explained to them, the need for preparing one that will focus on certain priorities and the countrys development.
The public, in general, and educators, teachers and students in particular should know that it is public funds that are utilised for various purposes by the government, and they also should know that it is their right to tell the government that their money should be used to ensure peoples better quality of life and national development. An alternative budget highlights the limitations of a particular public budget and proposes measures that are progressive, socially equitable and inclusive. As a community, educators, teachers and students should be able to propose alternative budgets and make the government consider reforms suggested by them. Their voice must be heard. It is possible only if they have budget literacy and become informed and responsive citizens. Educational institutions have the responsibility to produce informed and responsive citizens.
The writer is an academic, columnist and freelance writer. email@example.com