Author(s): Sonal Matharu
Date: Apr 27, 2012
Experts say the plan misses diet, care and ignores children with special needs
The 2011 National Population Census reveals that India has 158.7 million children under six
The Centre has unveiled a new policy aimed at holistic development of children under six, a group which has so far been ignored by policy makers.
The national Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy unveiled in the last week of March by Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, aims to innovate pre-school education using play-based and child-friendly techniques, which will help children settle in the formal school education.
The 2011 National Population Census reveals that India has 158.7 million children under six. But government schemes like mid-day meals aimed at better nutrition and Right to Education cover children above 6 years of age.
The policy notes that currently there is very little data on ECCE facilities for infants, like day-care centres and crèches run by the government, voluntary sector and private players. There is also negligible data on the number of children with access to such facilities. The policy plans to give “universal access” to children to such facility and at the same time create a standard set of guidelines covering all the three sectors.
The policy will also promote use of local language as the medium of communication in all ECCE centres. Dipa Sinha, national advisor (child nutrition) to the office of the commissioners to Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, says currently different programmes for children on health, nutrition and education fall under different ministries. There is no one umbrella of service that meets all the needs of children. “ECCE talks of holistic development of a child in a single policy, which is welcome,” she adds.
Several child care specialists feel the policy requires substantiation, especially on issues such as day care, diet and children with special needs.
Some of its prescriptions are vague. The policy talks about adding crèches to the existing anganwadi centres, through which the government runs its Integrated Child Development Services programme, but it does not say how and at what scale. It sums up the need for crèches in just one sentence—“Conversion of anganwadis into anganwadi-cum-creches with a planned early stimulation component and interactive environment for children below three years will be piloted”—without elaborating on the needs of working mothers or requirement of day care in the informal sector like women working as construction workers and domestic help. Sinha criticises the policy saying the need of the mother also needs to be recognised along with the needs of the children.
Mina Swaminathan, a specialist in pre-school education, says it is important to specify in the policy the benefit it will advance to the informal sector. “The majority of poor working women, especially those in the informal sector, who are even more invisible, find themselves in a situation where their need to work conflicts with their need to care for their young children,” says Swaminathan.
There are also worries that the policy does not go into the specifics of how it would curb malnutrition among children. Arun Gupta, member of the Prime Minister’s council on nutritional challenges, says that the first two years of a child’s life is important as 90 per cent of the brain develops during this period. A report by Naandi Foundation, a non-profit working on child rights in January 2012, on hunger entitled HUNGaMA says that nearly half of the children in the country are malnourished. ECCE only talks about strengthening structures under Integrated Child Development Scheme but remains silent on the diet it envisages.
Children with special needs have been forgotten in the policy. There are no additional provisions for differently-abled children, children of migrating work force and those living in urban slums. “There is no institutional structure an anganwadi worker can refer to if she identifies children with special needs,” says Sinha.
Experts like Swaminathan want the ministry to clearly define what child-care entails. “The stress of the policy is on improving pre-school education but what about children below three years who do not go to pre-school? How will the policy ensure that they are taken care of?” asks Swaminathan.
Vandana Prasad, national convener of Public Health Resource Network in Delhi, a non-profit agrees. “The Union health ministry’s National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) has several programmes for neo-natal care and malnutrition and ECCE currently is divided between various agencies like ministry of health, child development and human resource. But care is left out by all.”