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AFTER the appointment of the standing committee last week, the civic administration is likely to present the annual budget early next month. Apart from the roads and bridges departments, which usually bag the highest allocations, the health and education departments, known to have the poorest expenditure in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), have drawn up their plans for the upcoming financial year. Activists, however, find the measures to be inadequate.
In the last budget, the BMC had allocated at least Rs 2,500 crore for the education department. Officials of the department said their primary focus in the coming fiscal year would be on improving the overall quality of civic-run schools, especially the primary schools in Mumbai. Education Officer Mahesh Palakar said the BMC would conduct a screening process to pick 15 to 20 schools in the city where students would be coached to take international talent search examinations.
“Schools in which the students show interest and potential will be picked for this project in which we will train them for talent search exams like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Olympiad. We will take up other measures to turn a school into a model which can inspire others,” he said.
Palakar added that the education department was also planning to take up measures to reduce the number of out-of-school children. “Our staff will bring the children who have either dropped out of schools or are not enrolled back into the education system,” he said.
Apart from other establishment costs and existing projects, new initiatives will stress digitisation of schools. “We want to ensure that technology is used as a teaching aid. We want to upload the entire curriculum online in the form of presentations and videos so that children can revisit it on their own. We will also set up projectors in the schools and will develop a software so that all activities can be assigned electronically,” he said.
Activists, however, pointed out that there are other pressing concerns in the education system that needed greater priority. Shyam Sonar, an activist pursuing issues related to the Right to Education Act, said the BMC should allocate funds to ensure all civic-run schools have education till Class VIII under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. “Of the 1,100 odd primary schools in the city, 923 of them have classes from I-VII, while 177 of them are only upto Class IV, leaving only 253 that provide free and compulsory education to students till Class VIII, which is an outright violation of the Act. More than digitisation, parents expect that all civic schools should at least run till Class X. Many children either discontinue education after Class VII or parents have to find a private school they can afford,” he said.
While the RTE Act mandates that ideally there should be a government school within 1 km of a house, many parents in Azad Nagar in Malvani have to shell out about Rs 600 per month on auto fares to send their children to school. “Apart from spending on infrastructure, the BMC should provide for transportation for all schools and if it is not possible in certain areas, they should then give transportation allowance to parents. This can surely bring down the dropout rate,” he said.
The health department’s plan, even though it addresses a wider range of issues, is not a very good scenario either.
Apart from the existing projects, a health official said, the BMC would set up more neonatal care units in Mumbai hospitals among the new initiatives. “There was a shortage of sick newborn care unit equipment in the maternity hospitals and we introduced them in five hospitals in Magathane, Oshiwara, Marol, Kurla and Bhandup. We are now planning to add more units in maternity hospitals in Prabhadevi, Borivli and Mahim in the upcoming year,” the official said. The health department had a total provision of at least Rs 3,690 crore in the budget last year.
The BMC will also take up a programme to control the spread of tuberculosis in civic hospitals by focusing on the staff working with TB patients.
“We will implement precautionary measures. We will monitor the health of doctors and will provide them with nutritional support to improve their immunity,” the official said. As a first, the health department is also planning to provide TB outpatients with a prevention kit which will include a handkerchief and bleaching powder. Going the environment-friendly way, the department is also planning to introduce pipe natural gas in municipal crematoriums and instead of using wood, they are planning to switch to briquette, which is compressed peat locally sourced from farms.
Terming the initiatives “cosmetic”, Abhay Shukla, an activist and member of the Jan Swastha Abhiyaan, said even though some changes were positive, they were not enough to address the needs of the people. “The epidemiological scenario of the city is changing and in the face of new health challenges, public health services are lagging behind. Municipal hospitals in Mumbai need to evolve accordingly and address more urgent needs like inadequate number of dialysis centres,” he said.
Shukla added that the BMC also needed to focus on strengthening the primary healthcare in the city. “Primary healthcare used to be relatively well managed before. However, this link has weakened now and the BMC needs to focus on expanding the reach of its staff into the slums where there is a shortage of antenatal care. One doesn’t have to go to Palghar to find malnutrition. It exists in the slums in our city,” he said.
Referring to diseases like TB, dengue and malaria, Shukla said that that the BMC needed to draw up an integrated public health strategy. “The municipality is involved in the day-to-day lives of its citizens like management of sewerage, water and garbage. Each of these departments however, work without any coordination among themselves. A better inter-sectoral strategy is missing and improved coordination can help prevent such diseases,” he said.