India is home to about 25 crore children in the age group of 0 to 8 years, defined as early childhood. Investing in today’s children, who represent future of the country, is the best investment a nation can make. It reaps highest possible dividends, all-round gains in human and economic development, which are sustained over many future generations. Recognising this, many countries world over have over recent years doubled down on their efforts in the Early Childhood Development (ECD) sector.
India as well has made remarkable progress in improving ECD sector outcomes in recent years as seen across four ECD focus areas – health and nutrition, early childhood education, child protection, and child care and support.
On health and nutrition outcomes, recently published results from the National Family Health Survey 2019-21 round outline areas of progress and where we need to focus more. Delivery care has improved with share of institutional deliveries remarkably increasing to 89 per cent in 2019-21, compared to 39 per cent in 2005-06.
This has led to better birth outcomes. Nearly two out of every three children under the age of six months are now exclusively breastfed as recommended by the World Health Organization. Targeted policy interventions such as extended maternity leave and special initiatives such as MAA (“Mother’s Absolute Affection”) to promote breastfeeding helped in achieving this outcome.
Post- delivery care is becoming better with more than three fourth of children now getting fully vaccinated within first 2 years. There is an improvement on nutrition indicators with prevalence of underweight children reducing to 32 per cent in 2019-21 from 43 per cent in 2005-06.
However, high and increasing incidence of anaemia (2 out of every 3 children in 2019-21) remains a cause of concern. Also, there are very early signs of obesity on a rise even in children below five year age with per cent of overweight children increasing to 3.4 per cent in 2019-21, from 2.1 per cent in 2015-16.
Early childhood education (ECE) is the second critical component of ECD sector. With success in universalisation of primary education, the primary enrolment rates in India are now comparable to developed countries. Learning outcomes are also improving consistently. Similar success needs to be replicated for pre-primary education.
At present, the pre-primary enrolment rate in India is only 14 per cent. In comparison, the pre-primary enrolment rates are close to 90 per cent for developed nations. For the Early Childhood Development, the pre-primary education is critical – up to 85 per cent of a child’s brain development happens by the age of 6.
This is recognized in the New Education Policy (2020) where first five years of early education (from age 3 to 8) are formally captured under the new structure of 5+3+3+4. Pre-primary enrolments were severely affected by pandemic driven closures of education providers.
Hopefully, as the pandemic retreats, we will see the enrolment rates go up. Communication drives to educate parents on benefits of pre-primary education will be needed to get the community effect driven enrolments in pre-primary education.
Child protection area of ECD sector requires immediate focus. Reported incidents of crime against children have agonisingly stayed high at 1.29 lac in 2020. This implies a very high crime rate of nearly 30 per lac children. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act of 2012 aimed at providing a strong legal framework for reporting and prosecuting child abuse cases.
Nearly one third of all crimes against children in 2019 were reported under this Act. In 94 per cent of cases, the offender was known to victim highlighting need for enhancing parental and family support systems to detect likelihood of abuse before actual crime can take place.
New POCSO rules, notified in 2020, focus on awareness generation, capacity building, and making the law even more effective. The rules provide for strengthening of child protection units at district level. The rules also call upon state governments to formulate child protection policy based on the doctrine of ‘zero tolerance’ for violence against children. These are welcome changes from a policy perspective, and focus should be on ensuring rigors on-ground implementation.
The fourth focus area of ECD sector is child care and support. India has more than 3.7 lac children staying outside a traditional parental home in various forms of nearly 10,000 child care institutions as per recorded Government data. Many more are staying in non-formal support centres.
Many of these child care homes are deficient in physical and soft infrastructure e.g., nearly a third of specialized adoption agencies are operating without a professional social worker, leaving children vulnerable to abuse. Recent amendments to the Juvenile Justice bill seek to improve efficiency of adoption process through a more active role for local district administration and improve functioning of Child Welfare Committees at child care homes.
In summary, while a lot of progress has been made over last decade, time is apt now to make a more concerted push to achieve globally best in class outcomes on ECD indicators. This could be realized through a four pillared approach.
First pillar of this approach would be to promote research and to build Human Capital in the Indian ECD sector. Indian ECD sector is woefully short of India specific research and practitioners in this space.
Government should aim to develop India specific training modules and deliver trainings to all ECD workers – nursery teachers, children healthcare delivery professionals, child protection specialists, child care home operators. Government should also promote new under-graduation and masters courses in the ECD sector and sponsor doctoral studies focusing on India specific ECD research.
The second pillar of approach is to foster innovation in the ECD sector. Start-ups can apply modern technologies such as AR/VR, IoT to solve many ECD related challenges in India e.g., taking early education solutions to remote areas.
Government should identify, incubate, and support such start-ups who are innovating to bring cutting edge ECD solutions and services. This pillar should also focus on tapping global start-ups and encouraging them to customise and bring their offerings to India.
The third pillar of the approach is to use data and analytics for evidence based policy setting for the ECD sector. Testing global ECD models with Indian data can throw interesting and useful insights for setting policy measures suited for Indian context.
For example, we still don’t know enough how the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have affected physical and mental development of 0-8 age bracket children in India and how can they catch-up on last 18 months lost to the pandemic. Another topic that requires careful policy formulation is impact of technology and screen-time on children.
Fourth pillar of the approach would be to set quality standards and design operating framework for ECD infrastructure and facilities such as nurseries, paediatrician wards, day care centres, sports academies, child protection cells. This is needed to ensure consistency in delivery of ECD services and assuring minimum quality standards across all the institutions that deal with children.
To launch and oversee these initiatives with rigor and to coordinate efforts with various other line ministries and agencies involved, India should consider setting-up a constitutional entity focused on Early Childhood Development.
This entity should have the mandate to deliver improved ECD outcomes, at par with the developed world across the four outlines ECD areas – Health and nutrition, Early child education, Child protection, and Child care and support.
This is the best investment we can ever make for the long term growth and prosperity of the country. We owe it to our next generation.
Abhishek Agrawal runs his consulting practice One A Advisors, where he has advised a leading global Early Childhood Development entity on strategy and organisation performance. He is ex-Associate Partner with McKinsey & Company’s India office.
Views are personal