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Can We Ensure Our Commitment to the Young Child?

India’s ‘perceived’ growth in international stature and its potential emergence as ‘Viksitbharat’ is largely justified in terms of India’s relative demographic advantage. With more than 50 per cent of its current population being below the age of 25 years, India has an advantage or dividend in the form of more youthful and productive human capital. […]

India’s ‘perceived’ growth in international stature and its potential emergence as ‘Viksitbharat’ is largely justified in terms of India’s relative demographic advantage. With more than 50 per cent of its current population being below the age of 25 years, India has an advantage or dividend in the form of more youthful and productive human capital. The key question this article is addressing is –if our goal of taking India to a status of Viksitbharat is to be achieved, what are the areas that matter the most? Areas that are crucial to this vision from the perspective of nurturing our human capital, such as ‘Health’ and ‘Education’ and within these early childhood care and education (ECCE)? With low learning outcomes, where only 44% students of grade 5 can comprehend standard 2 level, text we need to consider the pathways we can strengthen to give the country a real chance to leverage the demographic advantage.

Benefits of ECCE

The National Education Policy (2020) has rightly identified the early childhood stage below six years as the critical stage of the human life span. As per neuroscience research, it is in this substage in a child’s life that brain development occurs at its fastest pace, the brain architecture starts taking shape and the brain’s potential gets primarily determined. This is largely through the nutritional, health, and educational opportunities and environmental experiences the child is exposed to in the first six years of life. As a result, investment in high-quality ECCE not only demonstrates a positive impact on learning levels in schools but also in the longer term on the child’s overall personality development and social adjustment later in life.

Positive childhood experiences, fostered by quality ECCE programs, yield benefits such as enhanced social adjustment in work and family settings and increased prosperity in adulthood. Conversely, neuroscience reveals that frequent adverse childhood experiences induce toxic stress, leading to poor social and learning outcomes, higher rates of juvenile delinquency, and even increased risks of lifestyle diseases like cancer and diabetes later in life!

The cumulative benefits of ECCE also have a large-scale impact on the society. Good quality early childhood care and education has the potential to narrow and, in some cases, close the social equity gap in children’s learning, particularly in underprivileged contexts. Further, with better educated and more skilled children, countries can attain higher economic growth, raising the living standards across the socio-economic strata. In fact, a World Bank study in India demonstrated a return of INR 25 for every rupee invested in ECCE. Similar trends are also reported from studies around the world.

Current Scenario for ECCE in India

The National Education Policy (2020) has rightly designated this early childhood stage from 3 to 6 years in combination with grades 1 and 2 of primary school as the Foundational stage of education. However, the Right to Education Act, 2009 only declares the education of children between 6 to 14 years as a fundamental and justiciable right of every Indian child. Unfortunately, the early years’ education through ECCE, wherein the brain potential is getting determined, was kept excluded!

Further, a report by Save the Children finds that while 1.5 to 2.2 per cent of GDP must be spent on ECCE ideally, the current spending is only 0.1 per cent. This translates to a major shortfall in the INR 32500/- per year per child that must be spent annually to achieve universal ECCE by 2030.

The social infrastructure is also largely lacking when it comes to implementing and ensuring access to early childhood care and education. Of the 99 million children between 3-6 years of age, one-third do not receive ECE care from the government, NGOs or private services. These omissions and lacunae ignore the critical importance of the early years’ education and are conceptually and philosophically inexplicable and counterproductive.

Making ECCE Accessible and Available to All Children

Given the huge gaps in the implementation of ECCE, there are several steps that can be taken by the government:

Firstly, including ECCE as an enforceable right by including it under the RTE Act, 2009 is essential. This will not only ensure better accessibility for people from marginalised socio-economic classes but will also hold state governments and institutions accountable for non-compliance.

Secondly, public spending in ECCE needs to be ramped up. In the current investment scenario, we are far from achieving universal early care for children by 2030. Lastly, the lack of social infrastructure also adds to the exclusion of young children from accessing ECCE and continuing school education.

Universalising high quality ECCE is practically akin to laying the firm foundation for the future we want. Therefore, is this not the time for political parties to consider committing to correct this wrong and support inclusion of ECCE as a fundamental right of every Indian child? For let us again seriously consider—can we build our dream mansion of a Viksit Bharat without a strong foundation?

Venita Kaul, Professor Emerita Ambedkar University, Steering Committee Member, Alliance to Right to ECD

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