Inadequate infrastructure, lack of staff affect crèches even as demand surges

With more women opting to return to their jobs after childbirth, the demand for child day care centres (crèches) has increased. There is good patronage for the crèches, whether government-sponsored or run by individuals. But is there a regulatory mechanism to monitor them and how prepared are they to tackle emergencies?

K. Shanmugavelayutham, Convener of Tamil Nadu Forum for Crèche and Childcare Services (TN-FORCES), says approximately 1,700 anganwadis and 300 voluntary organisations, including the Indian Council for Child Welfare, Women Voluntary Service, Women Indian Association and Guild of Service, are running day care centres with government support.

Under the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche programme, the State Social Welfare Board has tied up with non-governmental organisations to run the crèches. At a centre on Greenways Road, 75 children are currently on rolls, with three teachers and three attendants to take care of them. “We run it like a school. We ask for the immunisation card and take a deposit,” said one of the teachers.

Some anganwadis in South Chennai have ventilated rooms but more children are also enrolled. In one instance, merging two crèches has resulted in 50 children in a space meant for 25. “Due to the lack of space, some of the children have had to eat inside the kitchen, which is unsafe as we have gas stoves,” said an anganwadi helper. Since schools reopened, some older children have moved on, which has eased the pressure a bit.

The anganwadi workers, including teachers are also overworked, underlining the need for more helpers. A teacher from a centre in Ambattur says, “I have not had a helper in almost a year and I have paid out of my own pocket to hire one.”

Aruna Krishnan, Manager-Development Support, CRY said, “The conditions in North Chennai are much worse. They have serious infrastructure problems and children will end up contracting diseases if they go into those centres.”

Crèches are available in Central and State government offices and women police stations but the role of a majority of these centres is mere custodial care of the children in their centres. Most of those employed in these centres have picked up the skills of caring for children from home.

The private crèches run with the sponsorship of government organisations face another dilemma. A notice at the crèche in Madras High Court appeals to patrons to pay up arrears, even as the Women Lawyers' Association is seeking sponsors to air-condition the bedroom for the children.

The centre in the Institute of Social Paediatrics, Government Stanley Hospital, offers a different service. Mothers who are visiting the hospital with more than one child can leave the healthy child in the custody of a teacher while taking the sick child to the doctor. On an average, 50 toddlers are kept occupied at the facility on any working day for around half-an-hour at least.

Deepa, who works in a State government department in Ezhilagam, leaves her six-month-old son in the centre behind her office. “My mother died two months ago. My mother-in-law offered to take care of my son but she lives in Madurai and I don't want to be so far away from him. This is the only option,” says Deepa. She packs a hamper, including diapers, wipes, clothes and food, and leaves her child in the care of two helpers at the centre. She visits him during her lunch break.

Crèche attendant H. Kodhai says it was established 30 years ago and receives around 20 children at any given time. Her salary depends on the number of children she tends to. The well-ventilated building is under the Public Works Department's purview but the cracks on the wall have not been repaired, though minor repairs are taken care of, the women say.

Working parents who opt for private players look for features and amenities tailored to their needs. “In a private day care centre I know I can demand service,” says Twinkle Xavier, mother of a three-and-half-year old. “We did not want an air conditioned environment in the play school and wanted it to be close to my home. We looked for a ratio of one teacher to five kids and a good learning environment,” she adds.

Although there are a large number of centres, there is also a need for more. For instance, of the three industrial estates in the city, only Ambattur has a crèche. As the need increases, childcare activists are representing to the government to set up a regulatory body to check the mushrooming number of crèches and ensure physical and emotional health of the children.

(With inputs from Liffy Thomas, Sowmiya Ashok and R. Sujatha)

What they say

Anshu Roy, parent

Quite a lot of research has to go before selecting a day care centre. I, for instance, looked up at features on the website that day care centres offered and had conversation before zeroing in on one.

Initially, I was considering keeping a maid to look after my son, but I decided to keep him with other children in a day care centre for the social environment it offers. A place where my child will be groomed well with plenty of activity to keep him occupied and with enough attention were my main requirements.

K. Shanmugavelayutham, Convenor, TN-FORCES

There is no legal provision to regulate and monitor the functioning of crèches. While play based teaching method should be adopted, very little of it is being implemented. Training of the crèche teachers has been frequently neglected by the crèche centres and Government. The working conditions of the crèche teachers are unfavourable. The salary of child care workers is less than that of an unskilled worker. The absence of a regulatory body makes it easy for any person to start a crèche anywhere, no matter how unhygienic or appalling the conditions.

V. Poovazhagi: Assistant professor, Paediatrics, Institute of Child Health

As children are prone to develop viral and bacterial infections, day care providers should be professionally trained in basic health, hygiene and child development. They must follow proper hygiene and cleanliness at the centre. Proper techniques for change of diapers, disposal of soiled diapers, proper handwashing after using toilets, before and after meals, after cleaning the centre or clearing discharges from the nose in the children can prevent most of the infections. Sleep related hygiene about particular nap areas and separate mattresses should be taken care of. Play area should be safe.

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