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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Early childcare holds the big key to nurturing future generations

Early childcare holds the big key to nurturing future generations

Improving education and health in the early years can yield durable gains for children and society

Photo: Mint Premium
Photo: Mint 

In 1992, India ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which called for its signatories to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child". Since then, the Indian government has taken several measures to curb child labour and marriage, ensure universal access to primary education (through the Right to Education Act 2009, for example) and enhance the nutritional status of children (under the Poshan Abhiyaan), aimed at improving children’s development outcomes. However, with only 1 in 4 Indian children developmentally on track in the literacy-numeracy domain, and about 35% of those under the age of 5 years malnourished, much remains to be done in the field of early childcare.

Anganwadi Centers (AWCs) are the most common and publicly available facilities, initially constituted in 1975 to strengthen the public health system by providing immunization and health check-ups, and later to provide supplementary nutrition, non-formal pre-school education and day-care. However, the weaknesses in the AWC system and poor quality of services provided there are well documented. Today, 51% of children from families in the lowest wealth quintile attend AWCs, while more than half the children from the top 20% households attend private care facilities. This poor and uneven use of the country’s AWC facility is reflected in India’s poor ranking in the Human Capital Index (116th of 174 countries in 2020) as well as the Global Hunger Index (94th among 107 countries in 2020).

The two key elements of early child development include education and health. A child’s early years (0 to 8 years) form the foundation of all learning and are therefore the most extraordinary period of development in a child’s life. Research has shown that greater cognitive abilities and being developmentally on track with literacy and numeracy in childhood provide for better learning in school and higher educational attainment, leading to major social and economic gains for society in the long run. Similarly, providing children with a nurturing environment in early years, with adequate nutrition, hygiene, protection and responsive stimulation, boosts healthy childhood development and delivers positive outcomes.

Currently, India ranks 121st among 163 countries on the SDG Index Score; our performance on the SDGs of hunger, health and well-being and quality education have been dismal and falling since 2020. Our children face constraints like lack of resources and attitudinal barriers, while disparities become more pronounced for girls and children with special needs. The disruption of Anganwadi services during the covid pandemic pushed millions of children out of school. The adverse impact of this disruption will be felt for years to come, as most expert opinion has cautioned. It is imperative that we focus our efforts on elements like adequate nutrition, early stimulation and opportunities to attain education, without which children may face poor prospects later on.

In general, there has to be a holistic and resilient foundation.

In the last six years, the number of beneficiaries covered under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) has been falling: in 2021, about 89 million mothers and children benefitted from ICDS services in India, a 14% fall since 2016. This decline shows how AWCs today are stretched for resources—both human and capital, and its workers remain overworked and underpaid. There is plenty of scope to bridge these gaps to ensure delivery of universal, quality and formal centre-based care for Indian children, starting at an early age. The first step to improve these services is to collect more reliable, non-generalized evidence on the effectiveness of existing services in India. Further, presently, the country’s Right to Education Act covers children from 6 to 14 years of age, which excludes children in a crucial phase of brain development.

The pre-school curriculum should be designed to include play-based opportunities alongside literacy and numeracy training for the better all-round development of children. As recommended by the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy of 2013, a regulatory framework should be established for ECCE that covers private as well as public pre-school facilities and sets prerequisite quality standards. Parents, communities and other stakeholders should also be roped in to explain and publicize why ECCE is crucial and how it shapes children’s foundation of learning for the rest of their lives. ECCE needs to be brought into post-covid exercises such as the re-opening of schools and making up for the learning losses of children. Those who are in the initial stages of learning need extra attention.

Recent policy documents and commitments shown by the government reaffirm that it is cognizant of the need to adopt a ‘life course’ approach towards individual lives. However, translating that vision and implementing it on the ground requires aligning and integrating all care interventions across sectors under one framework to efficiently and effectively deliver appropriate services in early childhood, when most needed.

Neelanjana Gupta & Trisha Chandra are, respectively, a research manager and a research associate at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE)

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Published: 03 Oct 2022, 10:24 PM IST
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