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Is India augmenting social capital via education and health push?

On the health front, the central government has made several steps towards tackling hunger and malnutrition, menstrual hygiene, reproductive rights and family planning. Photo: MintPremium
On the health front, the central government has made several steps towards tackling hunger and malnutrition, menstrual hygiene, reproductive rights and family planning. Photo: Mint

From improving child nutrition to reducing maternal mortality, school education to reproductive health, there seems to be a renewed focus on improving social and human capital

New Delhi: Women and child development (WCD) secretary Rakesh Srivastava believes eliminating malnutrition among children is critical for the country to benefit from its young demography and that it must start from bottom of the pyramid.

Backed by a recent Rs12,000 crore central package for improving nutrition among children, Srivastava’s ministry has written to all district collectors to tackle the nutrition challenge where two out of every five children suffer from stunting.

“We have asked the district collectors and district magistrates to take responsibility for eliminating malnutrition in their districts," Srivastava said.

What the WCD ministry is looking to do is indicative of a bigger realization and shift that is undergoing at both federal and state levels across India irrespective of the party in power. From improving child nutrition to reducing maternal mortality, from school education to reproductive health, from skills development to menstrual hygiene, there seems to a renewed focus on improving social and human capital.

“If India wishes to benefit from its young demography, it has to work sincerely on two key sectors: health and education. While primary health and early child hood health is a must, in case of education, we have to focus on school education and allied segments like teacher education to make young Indians healthy and learn well to shape their own future and that of the country," said A. Santosh Mathew, chairman of National Council of Teacher Education during an interaction in September.

Mathew is now working hard to reshape teacher education by making it oriented to output rather than infrastructure. India suffers learning deficits at most of its 1.5 million schools.

Several states are focusing attention on education and health to correct the situation. Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia’s Twitter profile says, “Lets work on Classroom Revolution to save the country…". The Aaam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi allocates almost 25% of its state budget to education. It has opened some schools with superior infrastructure, and is adding 10,000 classrooms in government schools and sending teachers to Ivy league universities and Indian Institutes of Management for training. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal does not hesitate to say that education and health are election issues for his party, an unusual break from traditional political rhetoric.

Kerala is looking to make public schools high-tech by April 2018. “Government-run schools in Kerala were seen as reeling under a state of paralysis, lacking infrastructure and other facilities. Parents lacked the confidence to send the students there and quite a few of them were shutting down every year. So, we devised a programme to convert 1,000 government schools into centres of excellence and 45,000 classrooms into high-tech ones…,"

Mint reported on 24 September, quoting K. Anvar Sadath, vice-chairman and executive director of Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE), a government body.

Rajasthan too is looking at reforming school education. It is planning to merge small schools in a particular locality to better utilize their infrastructure and focus on quality enhancement. The state is not hesitating to work with leading private players to improve its government schools.

“Of late, several state governments including Rajasthan has started giving a renewed focus on school education. India needs low-cost education and healthcare without compromising quality concerns," said Amrish Chandra, group president, GEMS Education India, the Indian arm of a Dubai-based education group that is working with several Indian states.

On the health front, the central government has made several steps towards tackling hunger and malnutrition, menstrual hygiene, reproductive rights and family planning.

“We are looking to tackle health problems such as infant mortality and maternal mortality...," said Ajay Khera, deputy commissioner, child and adolescent health at the union health ministry.

According to government data, the under-5 mortality rate has declined from 59 per 1,000 live births in 2010 to 43 in 2015. The infant mortality rate (IMR) rate too has declined to 34 per 1000 live births in 2016, from 37 in 2015. While most states and Union territories improved their performance, Goa with an IMR of 8 and Kerala and Puducherry (10) are at the top of table.

Besides, 146 high-fertility districts have been identified to start targeted interventions and awareness campaign to promote family planning and personal hygiene among newly-weds. “We need more investment in social capital," said Khera of the health ministry, adding that if the country continues to progress well, in next seven to eight years, India’s healthcare can be at par with some of the developed countries.

But there is still a long way to go – at least 840,000 infants died in India in 2016 as per official figures, and in education, one out of every two school-going children cannot read a text meant for three levels below as per the ASER report. Its secondary students’ performance was placed 73rd among 74 countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of 2009-10 published in 2011. India now aims to return to the prestigious PISA study conducted by Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) in 2021.

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