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Health and education must be country’s central agenda

The current political discourse must be radically altered by making health and education central to the country’s agenda and policy trajectory. Sitaram Yechury writes.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2013 01:01 IST
Sitaram Yechury

The current electoral discourse shows an amazing disconnect with the actual reality of the deteriorating livelihood conditions of our people. The other day, the BJP PM aspirant thundered in Bangalore that the BJP seeks to create confidence and not fear among the people. The 2002 Gujarat communal pogrom makes this sound incredulous. There is nothing in the BJP’s campaign pitch that offers any solution or a methodology for tackling the basic problems of our people.

The BJP’s efforts at distorting history and the Congress’s effort to appropriate history are pushing even the little gains that the people could extract from the UPA 1 government on to the backburner.

The crucial outside support of the Left parties ensured that the UPA 1 government embarked on a path of seeking to extend the people’s rights beyond those provided by our Constitution. The consequent legislations, though inadequate, granting the right to information, education, food security and the right of tribal people to their forest lands and produce were part of this process.

In addition, various measures such as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), the extension of the mid-day meal scheme and the child labour prevention project, etc, were envisaged.

This was the result of an understanding that India can reap its demographic dividend by developing its human resources into an asset lest it turn into a liability. The 2011-12 budget claimed to have increased the ICDS allocation by 58%, the National Rural Health Mission by about 50%, the SSA by 21.7% and the Rashtriya Madhyamik Siksha Scheme by 28%.

However, instead of treating these as guaranteed ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’, they have been reduced to ‘schemes’ or ‘programmes’. The human workforce, mostly women, who are to ensure the success of these programmes, are treated not as regular workers but as ‘activists’ or ‘volunteers’ working on a meagre ‘honorarium’, not regular salaries.

Following a Supreme Court directive, the government claims to have universalised the ICDS by sanctioning 14 lakh anganwadi centres. However, the nodal ministry says that, of these, more than 1.25 lakh have no anganwadi workers. Additionally, more than 1.10 lakh sanctioned posts of helpers are lying vacant.

The workers are paid `3,000 and the helpers `1,500. This is the remuneration for taking care of children below the age of six, for nurturing our country’s future. Despite the claim of universalisation, only 63% of such children are covered under the scheme.

Likewise, the mid-day meal scheme, so crucial to improve the abysmal nutritional status of our children, which the prime minister once called a ‘national shame’, survives on a monthly honorarium of `1,000 paid to an estimated 27 lakh workers.

This is a mere 2.2% of its budgetary allocation. During discussions on the Right to Education Bill in Parliament, we had pointed out that this can only be effective if neighbourhood schools are established in every habitat and anganwadis are attached to them. By not accepting this, the UPA has effectively ensured that this legislation remains mostly on paper.

The mid-day meal scheme first developed in 1995 was ordered by the Supreme Court to be universalised in 2002. Every school under this scheme is mandated to provide hot, cooked and nutritious food, and should have a kitchen shed and devices for this purpose. Archana Prasad of Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that, as of April 2012, the revised cooking cost provided per child for a meal was `3.11 at primary and `4.65 at upper primary level — totally insufficient to provide nutritional food to the children. Instead of establishing these facilities in schools, what is happening in reality is the large-scale privatisation of the mid-day meal scheme with the emergence of some of the world’s largest networks of centralised kitchens.

61% of Delhi municipal schools are being catered to by three private organisations. The influx of big private capital into nutritional schemes has been confirmed by the Seventh Report of the Supreme Court-appointed Commissioners in November 2012.

The case of the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers is even worse. There are instances where they are paid a meagre `350 per institutional delivery. They do the work of a primary health worker without a regular salary.

The National Child Labour Prevention project staff receives a mere `4,000 a month. They have to go to the homes of child labourers and bring them to school and do both class room teaching and field work. The ‘para’ teachers of the SSA, who are required to have a graduation and BEd degrees to teach children from classes 1 to 5, are paid, on an average, only between `3,000 to 5,000 — roughly a tenth of a regular teacher’s salary.

The talk of India at the G20 table or entering the big league among emerging economies is all based on growth rate projections and is crucially underpinned by the robust, peaceful and equitable growth of all Indians, not just the privileged few. While infrastructure, roads and bridges require urgent attention, all of that would be meaningless without a healthy and well-educated population.

By not taking care of those entrusted with delivering good health and welfare, that promise is not even half fulfilled and remains a big failing. This needs to be immediately corrected to create a better India and to realise our inherent potential.

The current political discourse must be radically altered by making these issues central to the country’s agenda and policy trajectory. It is essential to realise our inherent potential as a country and people by investing in our youth.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP

The views expressed by the author are personal