Why the Centre must invest more in the National Creche Scheme
Asha, 3, sits quietly by herself in a corner of the anganwadi centre in a tiny village in southern Rajasthan. There are 15 children at this government day care centre. Many play with toys, scratch pictures on their slates, horse around. There are bright wall pictures, and a patient anganwadi worker does her best to manage the kids. But my eyes keep going back to Asha, and I notice three others like her — listless, staring into nothingness, unwilling or unable to participate, and it is deeply saddening. They are victims of a circumstance that affects almost a third of India’s children: no one paid attention to their early childhood care and development (ECCD), the essential learn by playing that is most needed before they are three years old. Why is ECCD so important, and why do some kids miss out? What can be done? These are important questions all of us must understand and become part of the solution to what is both a humanitarian and development problem.
The physical and cognitive development of a child begins in the womb, and 90% of it happens before she is 3. It is in this time that good nutrition is critical. She must also get a chance to socialise, learn and solve simple problems through play. There is scientific evidence that without these, the child’s physical and mental development are compromised for life, and the damage is mostly irreversible.
There are two reasons why Asha is in such a tragic state.
The first is that her mother was a daily wage worker who had little time even to regularly breastfeed Asha and spend time on parenting. Before Asha could enrol in the anganwadi, she was left at home in the care of her 9-year-old sister (whose education was also compromised) and elderly grandmother. Asha received no special attention.
The second was that there was no creche to take care of her. This is a facility where working parents can safely leave their child, and she would get adequate nourishing food, and opportunities for play and early learning. The creche is a neglected component that runs the risk of becoming extinct. There are four problems regarding universal provision of creches in India,
The first problem is disappearing budget. The Central government had a provision under the National Creche Scheme that creches be run by NGOs, with 90% of costs borne by the Centre, the balance by states. In 2017, the Centre reduced its contribution to 60%, leaving the states to cover the balance. Spending on creches plummeted and is virtually nil today. The number of facilities under the National Creche Scheme has reduced from over 23,000 in 2015 to around 7,000 this year. This translates into around one crèche per 21,000 children, an abysmally high figure. There are a few hundred anganwadi-cum-creches under another scheme. All this must be seen against the government’s already feeble target of 70,000 by 2017.
Second, ECCD for younger children is not a fundamental right, unlike right to education for children (6-14 years). This translates into weak policies, governance and implementation. Children entering school without early care could have already suffered irreversible damage to physical and mental development.
Third, there is insufficient community involvement in running creches. There are shining examples of ECCD programmes that have achieved results from Phulwaris in Chhattisgarh to the Promesa programme in Colombia. All such creches engage parent or neighbourhood groups, local governments and other stakeholders in their operations.
Fourth, while the State mandates that trained creche workers run facilities six days a week, they are poorly paid and not entitled to any social security. This no doubt takes a toll on their motivation and ultimately on quality of services provided.
Young children like Asha are the future of our country. They must receive care and development support in their earliest years, both as a human need and an economic imperative for the nation. Politicians, media, implementers, corporations and citizens, all have a role to play in making ECCD universally accessible. There are lives to be saved and votes to be swayed by acting on this issue.
Ashok Alexander is founder director of the Antara Foundation and author of A Stranger Truth
The views expressed are personal