Safe community crèches could change the very nature of the workforce in India and make it more gender equitable. It is with this in mind that the ministry of women and child development is finalising a national programme for crèche and day care facilities which, on paper, is a huge step forward. It proposes that crèche facilities for children in the age group six months to six years be not more than one-and-a-half kilometre from the home of the child or the workplace of the mother. It also proposes that BPL families where the monthly income of both parents is Rs 20,000 will pay Rs 20 for this and those who earn more will pay Rs 400.
There is a glitch here, the establishing of income levels could well be distorted unless a foolproof method is devised to measure this. As of now, according to the Factories Act, 1948, any organisation that employs more than 30 women must have a crèche facility. This, of course, is observed more in the breach than the norm. The children most at risk in urban settings are those of migrant workers. For them, having a crèche nearby is not enough as they tend to move to areas where they can find work. So there has to be greater emphasis on mobile crèches. There are a certain set of parameters which have to be fulfilled before establishing a crèche, among them being that the facility is properly ventilated, safe for children and manned by trained personnel. We have a situation in cities where children have come to harm in unlicenced crèches employing untrained people and worse, in some cases, sexual predators. Many workplaces do not want to give up precious commercial space for crèches despite the fact that a mother who is not stressed about the welfare of her child would make a better and more productive worker.
One way to cut costs and make more crèches available would be to start them on the premises of government schools. In rural areas, there is the anganwadi scheme but this is often beset by problems like lack of funds, inadequate supply of nutritious food items for the children and lack of workers. The first thing should be to improve and upgrade existing facilities. The next should ideally be for MPs to use their local area development assistance for at least two crèche facilities in their area with private partnership if possible. Like many other worthwhile schemes, the details of the programme must be clearly worked out first. If it works well, it would mean giving so many more women the choice to enter the workforce and less mental stress about their children’s well being and safety for those already working.