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We need a law for early childhood care and education

We need a law for early childhood care and education

Despite being the fastest-growing major economy and having ambitions to become the world’s third-largest economy, India cannot provide enough nutrition to its youngest children.

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Last Updated : 23 June 2024, 23:36 IST
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It is shameful that despite a decade of unhindered majority rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA government at the Centre, India still has the highest number of malnourished children in the world, and we are nowhere near fulfilling Sustainable Development Goal number two, ‘Zero Hunger,’ by 2030.

Despite being the fastest-growing major economy and having ambitions to become the world’s third-largest economy, India cannot provide enough nutrition to its youngest children. Could this be because of the misplaced priorities of Modi 1.0 and Modi 2.0? An important task for the new Union government is to make early childhood care and education (ECCE) a right for children below the age of six years.

In 2002, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) said that the proposed Article 21A, giving a fundamental right to education of children from six to 14 years, should be amended to include education of all children ‘up to the age of 14 years’, which would cover children from three to six years as well. It also recommended that after Article 24, Article 24-A be added to say, “Every child shall have the right to care and assistance in basic needs…”, which would include the provision of daycare, health, and nutrition to all children under the age of six years.

The 2015 law commission report on ‘Early Childhood Development and Legal Entitlements’ pointed out that though India ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, “the idea of justiciable rights for children, especially young children, has not yet taken shape”. Hence, it endorsed the NCRWC recommendations on Articles 21-A and 24-A.

However, despite these recommendations, the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) does not place legal obligations on the executive or provide rights to young children and has ‘a fragmented approach based on targeted interventions.’ 

Amending the Constitution as recommended by the NCRWC may take time, especially with the new government finding its footing. With the Karnataka government setting up a commission in October to usher in a State Education Policy (SEP), a state-level law to make the ICDS a legal right is possible.

Such a law is also a necessity in Karnataka today due to the confusion created by multiple agencies duplicating services for children. For instance, the Karnataka rural development and panchayat raj department has initiated ‘Koosina Mane’ (daycare centres), and the education department has started pre-primary sections for children in ‘Karnataka Public Schools’. Orders to start 1,008 pre-primary centres in the Kalyana Karnataka region were issued on June 11 — even before the SEP commission submits its recommendations. Though the intention of these departments is laudable, they have initiated the pre-school classes without consultation or convergence with the women and child development department, which oversees the ICDS.

In a meeting chaired by the chief secretary on January 7, 2019, the women and child development department contended that other departments that were providing pre-primary education were duplicating the ICDS’ work and were not able to provide all the services given by the ICDS. Both the education and women and child development departments are yet to share with the State Cabinet their differing stands on the topic.

Hence, as recommended by the law commission, the exclusive law for children under the age of six years needs to lay down that ‘the state should emerge as the primary duty-bearer’ under ‘a single institutional framework with a legislative foundation’, and multiple actors should not dilute this responsibility. It suggested ‘a statutory authority or Council for Early Childhood Development be created’. In Karnataka, it would also be desirable for the law to prescribe that all ECCE services be provided only under the women and child development department.

This law is also necessary due to the current lack of standardisation of the norms, infrastructure, budgets, etc. for anganwadis. In April 2021, the High Court of Karnataka expressed shock at the status of infrastructure in anganwadis after the government admitted that of the 65,911 anganwadis, 21,686 had no toilets, only 33,146 had electricity, and only 29,560 had fans. Almost all anganwadis lacked separate areas for sleeping and playing and a separate kitchen and store room, as recommended by the Justice N K Patil Committee in April 2012.

Despite this poor state of affairs, ICDS budgets have been continuously cut. It must be made a requirement under law that separate infrastructure be provided for children below three years and those between three and six years. Similarly, it must be made mandatory for the State to provide land, especially in urban areas, to construct anganwadis or improve their infrastructure.

Daycare for children under six years should be a legal right and universalised; and pre-primary education for children in the age group of three to six years should be made a fundamental right. The required budget for fulfilling these goals would have to be mandatorily provided as a first charge on the resources and fixed within the law.

The Anganwadi Workers’ Union has been agitating for years now to regularise their services. Considering the importance of their work and the additional working hours that will be required to provide daycare, anganwadi workers must be made government employees with proper wages, service conditions, including social security, etc. The pre-primary curriculum, the number of teachers and helpers required, their qualifications, and their regular training must be specified.

The responsibilities of the grama panchayats and municipalities in ensuring the infrastructure and proper functioning of anganwadis and the composition and functioning of ECCE monitoring bodies, such as the balavikas samitis, at every anganwadi, block, taluk, and district levels will have to be prescribed. A system for licensing and regulating private daycare service providers will also have to be introduced. The enacting of such a law at the earliest, even at the national level, will ensure the development of India’s future generations. 

(The writer is executive trustee, CIVIC-Bangalore)

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