Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) is globally recognised as a crucial element of education for holistic development. Therefore, countries the world over have also intensely pursued it. But in India, 30% of almost 385 million children live in extreme poverty. Hence, in our country, it gets difficult for a child to get proper care and education, as parents from marginalised families neglect a child’s development in the early stage of life.
As a development communication specialist, I used to conduct surveys among communities in rural areas. During one such field outing, I met a five-year-old girl named Gudiya, in Bihar’s Gaya district. Gudiya stays at home with her one-year-old sister, while her parents go to work. Her parents are daily wage workers employed in the profession of ‘Agarbatti’ (incense-stick) making just like the other households in the vicinity.
They roll 250 Agarbattis and earn only 150 rupees per day, leaving their children without any proper supervision. This phenomenon is very common in the area and unfortunately, the neglect hampers the early-stage development of children.
Sensing the lack of engagement, I conducted an activity, where a group of children from the neighbourhood, like Gudiya, were brought together and initiated into talking about their dreams and ambitions. I also invited and ensured the presence and participation of Gudiya’s mother. As part of the activity, the children were asked to close their eyes and imagine a favourable world of their own, look into the future, and see what they have become once they have grown up.
Surprisingly, Gudiya whom we thought of as a timid girl, appeared to be on cloud nine. Without taking much time, she shared her dream with us. She said, in her dream, she had become a teacher and was teaching in a school telling her students not to miss classes.
Gudiya also mentioned that she used to go to an Aanganwadi centre, but discontinued after she was burdened with the responsibility of looking after her sister. She liked the dream activity and said it was something she had never done before. There was a visible behavioural change in Gudiya by the time we had concluded the fun activity. We could easily see that she lacked any positive engagement and interaction in her life and that the burden of responsibility, at the tender age of five, was impacting her development.
This is just one example that highlights gross negligence. In India, there are many such children, who face negligence in their early childhood. Over 165 million children like Gudiya and her sister, between the ages of 0-6 years need physical and mental well-being, quality pre-primary programs and constitutional and policy interventions to ensure fair access to free and compulsory Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).
A number of constitutional and policy provisions have been made towards this end, like the insertion of Article 21A on right to free and compulsory education, Article 45 on ECCE under the 86th Constitutional Amendment Act and the RTE Act 2010 that guarantees right to quality elementary education for every child.
However, we have seen, like in Gudiya’s case, the laws in place are still not sufficient. The acts of effectively releasing the state from its obligation to provide care and education to children below 6 years, is, in fact, a negative development (as per the NCERT report on ECE).
The GOI has come up with a draft on The National Education Policy 2019, with an objective to give access to free, safe, high quality, developmentally appropriate care and education to each child of 3-6 years of age by 2025. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is also planning to review the 14-year-old National Curriculum Framework (NCF) in accordance with a new national education policy (NEP) and set up a committee for the purpose.
The new national education policy recommends extending the ambit of the RTE Act to also include early childhood education, along with secondary school education. This ensures that it touches the life of each and every citizen, consistent with their ability to contribute to many growing developmental imperatives of this country on the one hand, and towards creating a just and equitable society on the other.
As per the draft of the National Education policy 2019, “investment in ECCE has the potential to give all young children such access in an engaging and holistic way, thereby allowing all children to participate and ﬂourish in the educational system throughout their lives.”
Today, there is a severe learning crisis in India, where children like Gudiya are enrolled in primary schools but are failing to attain even basic skills. The draft NEP proposes to redefine the Indian education system. It raises a concern about why only students from more privileged classes have greater access to proper education and care. Why only they have greater access to strong learning environments? Through the implementation of a new education policy 2019, it can be expected, that all young children will be benefited holistically.
If the program under ECCE is implemented and monitored well, there would be a higher possibility of every dream coming true. It is established that the children are in dire need of formal pre-school education, one that would help them build their social skills, communication skills, creative skills, and would contribute to universal elementary education, while also preparing them for the formal education ahead.
The significance of ECCE rises from the fact that a formal pre-school education equips children to face the various circumstances that come in their way on a daily basis, and which become progressively hard to fix at a later stage. It also includes moral development, such as knowing the difference between “right” and “wrong”, besides physical development through movement and exercise.
In developed societies, ECCE is now being recognised as part of the elementary/primary infrastructure for economic development. In India, it has been estimated that the development of ECCE programmes are among some of the best investments the country could make, with an expected return of “10 or more, for every 1 invested”. Further to this, India in its draft New Education Policy recommends that multiple public schools should be brought together to form a school complex. The school complexes should also include Anganwadis, vocational education facilities, and an adult education centre.
Newly reformed and newly refined laws should support the children in the best way possible. The old strategies towards early childhood seem to have more than a few loopholes, which apparently led the children to suffer. In the name of early childhood development, whatever pre-education is given, has simply not been enough for the well-being of the child.
There are many independent bodies (NGOs) which work in collaboration with the government and act as a facilitator between the government and the beneficiaries. Yet, there are a lot of undiscovered problems that need to be dealt with via proper strategies and plans.
The draft of new education policy focuses on a return on investment, which is quite significant for our economic growth. It holds possibilities for developing a world-class, skilled workforce in India.