Will children get attention in budget?
In 2011, 14% of India’s population was under the age of 6.With the recent impetus to schemes for ensuring nutrition and reduction in the mortality rate of children under 5 (from 59 per 1000 live births in 2000 to 39 in 2016), the total number of children in this age group is likely to increase in Census 2021.
The latest National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy that focussed on children under 6 was in 2013. At this crucial stage in the human life cycle when 90% of the human brain develops, ECCE called for the creation of a protective and enabling environment through the integrated provision of care, health, nutrition, play, and early learning.
Yet, India’s policies and budget commitments towards this cohort remains unclear.
Over the years, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme within the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) has been the primary vehicle to implement ECCE across the country through Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) by ensuring the delivery of six services including Pre-School Education, health and nutrition.
In their current avatar, however, AWCs often lack the resources, human and physical, to provide for the holistic development of children. As per government data, across India, 12% of AWCs continue to operate from kuccha (non-permanent) buildings lacking even basic drinking water and sanitation facilities. Additionally, lack of human resources is reflected in, high vacancies; 6% of Angwandi Workers posts were vacant as on June 2019.
Moreover, while the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (NIPCCD) recommends at least 2 hours of the day to be spent on learning, several studies have found that much of the time of Anganwadi workers is spent instead the provision of the Supplementary Nutrition Programme and the daily maintenance of data.
The fiscal architecture is also an area of concern. Money for ECCE currently comes primarily from ICDS. But with 47% of the total ICDS budget dedicated to the Supplementary Nutrition Programme, the fiscal resources available for early learning remain low. In fact, total ICDS allocations have remained lower than the projected demand by MWCD for several years.
The inability of the state to provide a quality environment for ECCE has resulted in many parents moving away from AWCs to a more formal pre-school education system.
As per the recently published National Sample Survey (NSS) report, in the 3 to 5 years age group, 28% of children in rural areas and 48% in urban areas attended some kind of educational institute in 2017-18 (excluding the Anganwadis).This share is more than 50% for states such as Punjab, Kerala, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. (See Chart 1)
This shift towards a more formal schooling system is being encouraged by recent changes in policy. The Samagra Shiksha, an integrated scheme for school education introduced in 2018 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) callsfor the continuum from pre-school to senior secondary level and, prescribes states to co-locate the existing ICDS centres to within primary schools.
By June 2019, 18% of AWCs across the country were brought within school campuses with proportions varying from as high as 60% in Uttar Pradesh to less than 1% in some of the north- eastern states. (see Chart 2). This idea has also been emphasised in the recent Draft National Education Policy (2019) which recommends the extension of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 or Right to Education (RTE) Act by viewing the foundational stage of ages 3-8 as a single pedagogical unit.
While moving Anganwadis to within schools may help in improving their infrastructure, there are a few dangers. First, this could lead to a formalisation of ECCE: one that is focused on school-readiness, rather than the process through which children learn.
The second is a question of schools’ readiness (as opposed to the more common thinking of children’s school readiness). The present infrastructure and resources in government schooling system may not be in a position to facilitate such an environment for these little children. Data received by Accountability Initiative, at the Centre for Policy Research from an RTI query found that even at the elementary level,1022195 (over a million) posts for teachers, 20% of those sanctioned, were lying vacant. (See Chart 3)
With both ICDS and formal school education system failing to deliver, how then should we meet our commitment to ECCE? One option could be to restructure and strengthen the current ICDS system by ensuring a separate cadre of teachers within the Centre trained to meaningfully interact with children and focus on delivering ECCE.
This, in turn, would require a rethinking of the resources. Government could consider making a separate allocation for ECCE (not just PSE kits under ICDS as is currently done). One that allows states to use money based on their specific needs. Institutionally, as already being envisaged under Poshan Abhiyaan, this may require Health, Education and MWCD to work together in a more concerted manner. Given the current fiscal situation it may be naive to imagine a significant jump in allocations for ECCE this year. Budgets, however, are an opportunity to indicate a policy intent. With the draft NEP currently being finalised, let us hope Budget 2020 can spare a thought to India’s youngest minds.
(Avani Kapur is a Fellow and Director of the Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research. Mridusmita Bordoloi is a Senior Researcher at the Accountability Initiative)
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