Early Childhood Development─ The Present and the Path Forward 

UNDP defines childhood development as the process of enlarging children’s choices such as giving them access to quality healthcare, access to education, decent standard of living and the freedom to make choices. In simpler words, it means a process that ensures the holistic development of a child which further ensures the formation of better human capital at a later stage. Better human capital will help in ensuring higher productivity and better efficiency in all three sectors of economy which will ultimately lead to a boost in growth, development and employment opportunities. In the political sphere, better development at childhood means better leaders for the future that will ensure active participation in decision making.

The government will be held accountable and young people will vote and choose their representatives. In the social sphere, a healthy child decreases the burden of the government at a later stage in providing health facilities. An educated child is more likely to respect the rights of others and have a wider perspective that will allow him or her to be more appreciative of diversity. Early child development reduces the chances of child delinquency and promotes harmony and peace in the society. Despite these promises, there are problems when it comes to early childhood development. In the health sector, the Lancet report highlights that India is suffering from the twin burden of malnutrition and stunted children.

India has the second highest number of obese children at 14.4 million and one of the highest number of moderate to severely stunted children (about 30% are stunted). Universal Immunization has not been achieved and the lack of sanitation facilities makes children more prone to communicable diseases. The Economic Survey has highlighted that the Indian society has a strong son Meta preference which results in the neglect of girl child as a result of which there is weak and poor development. The number of such unwanted girls stands at 23 million. Preference for male child due to dowry, lack of awareness about the potential of women deprives the girl children of their rights and entitlements.

Thus, one major section of India’s total population gets deprived of the development projects. Poverty and hunger decreases the ability of a parent to provide education and health to his ward which results in weak childhood development. The problem is further aggravated by the presence of child labor which causes mental and psychological damage to the child and also decreases his or her appetite for education. Lastly, the lack of access to electricity and clean energy makes them prone to air pollution and leads to the deterioration of their health in the future. Having discussed the challenges of early childhood development, it is now important to focus on finding ways to overcome them and move forward.

Firstly, education needs to be made more inclusive, equitable and quality centric. The RTI Act should be restructured to ensure it focuses equally on qualitative aspects as well. This way, it not only guarantees the right to schooling but also the right to learning. In this context, the NITI Aayog has come out with a plan to improve school education which includes adopting child friendly policies, focus on extracurricular activities and exams and the evaluation of both the students and the teachers. The Eklavya School Model which aims to provide access to education for the tribal community is also a welcome step in this direction. In case of healthcare, the government has come out with the National Nutrition Mission to achieve ‘Kuposhan Mukt Bharat’ (a country free of malnutrition).

It aims to reduce low birth weight, lessening malnutrition by 2% per year and anemia by 3%per year. Apart from the other existing schemes, there is a need to increase the expenditure on healthcare to at least 2.5% (NHP 2017) to ensure accessibility and affordability of health facilities. The same has also been acknowledged by the National Health Policy. Gender inequality needs to be addressed efficiently and quickly. Greater awareness campaigns, strengthening NGO, Civil Society participation, girl child friendly schools and policies, stringent implementation of Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act are required.

In this context the ‘Beti Bachao Beti padhao’ scheme, ‘DhanLaxmi’ scheme, ‘Sukanya Samridhi Yojana’ and ‘Selfie with Daughters’ are pragmatic ones and effective monitoring is also required to ensure that they achieve their objectives. Early Childhood Development is an integral and important component of human development. A nation’s destiny is dependent on its children. Better leaders will not only ensure world peace but also a sustainable environment. This requires an effort from all the stakeholders i.e. the government, the parents, the NGOs, the schools and the private sectors. As Bill Gates said, “The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out”.

Picture Courtesy- Volunteer Forever

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