Early Childhood refers to the period from birth to six years of age. This period in the child’s life is of paramount importance because it has a significant bearing on her life ahead. Enough research has been done to prove that early years set neurological and biological pathways that affect health, learning, and behavior throughout life. Hence, it stems out from this fact that care given in this duration will reap benefits in the future. Even the World Bank has taken into account the need and partnered with various foundations to work on this cause.
With Right to Education already in place to ensure education for the children aged between 6-14 years, what about the children below six years of age? Having recognized the need to have a policy for these kids, in 2013, the Government of India approved the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy.
ECCE policy aims at “holistic and integrated” development of the child. Three stages with the age-specific needs are identified. Conception to Birth(ante and post natal health), Birth to Three years(survival, safety) and Three to Six years(protection from hazards,nutrition etc). The Ministry of Woman and Child Development is responsible for the implementation through ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services). ICDS is a center funded program which provides food, preschool education to children under 6 years of age through Anganwadi Centres.
In my experience of one month on the field, I have observed that there are bottlenecks. Although the policy is great on paper, kids don’t like going to Anganwadi because the workers are strict. Parents also don’t care because they think “real” learning begins only when they start going to formal school. Hence, they don’t understand the need to send their kids to Anganwadi. Even if parents are aware, either they are not educated themselves or do not have the time to teach their kids anything. Now, even if the kid somehow manages to reach the Anganwadi, the workers are busy in the documentation work that they get no or little time to actually teach something. And if they teach, in most cases, there is no reinforcement at home. All this leads to low level of school readiness, and lack of quality care. However, all is not dark and grim.
The nutrition part of the program is well taken care of. The kids get healthy food in form of cooked meals and ready to eat powder. But, more work needs to be done on the school readiness part.