After a long and painful period of neglect, India promises to devote attention to the issue of preparing all children for primary schooling. The National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy recently approved by the Union Cabinet aims to end the current laissez faire situation that has led to the mushrooming of expensive crèches, play schools, nursery schools and so on that adhere to no particular standard. On the other hand, there is the major public programme, the Integrated Child Development Services with a national footprint, but patchy outcomes. Policies are only as good as the institutional arrangements they make and the devices that they employ to bring about compliance. The ECCE policy will cover 158.7 million children in the 0 to 6 year age group. The government shall, it says, provide universal access for three sub-stages of childhood between ages 0 and 6 to health, nutrition, age-appropriate care, stimulation and early learning in a protective and enabling environment. There is stated intent to raise funding, set standards and monitor progress. So far, in spite of sustained economic growth, there has been no dramatic change in the proportion of undernourished children. It was the same in 2005-06, as measured by the National Family Health Survey-3, as in 1998-99. It is crucial, therefore, for the new policy to look at the allocation of funds carefully, and prevent profit-seeking actors from skimming off what is meant to create better anganwadi centres, provide standard materials for a play-based curriculum and good nutrition. Reliance on private partners to achieve universal access, equity and inclusion would be misplaced.

Discussions between the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the States on the ECCE policy should continue for its success across public, private and voluntary sectors, and to achieve convergence of multiple policies and schemes. That is also vital for the promised regulatory framework to work smoothly. That there are challenges is evident from the finding of the Comptroller and Auditor General: in 13 States, the performance of the ICDS over a five-year period from 2006 in the delivery of supplementary nutrition and pre-school education — two key goals — was depressingly poor. Infrastructure was so weak that 52 per cent of the anganwadi centres had no toilet and 32 per cent no drinking water. The programme has languished in spite of the Supreme Court’s intervention since 2001 to universalise and upgrade the ICDS, showing deplorable lack of commitment across the political spectrum. There are positive elements to the policy, such as prioritising mother tongue or language spoken at home, followed by exposure to oral English and regional languages. It must work to strengthen the national rights-based discourse on child development.

(This editorial was corrected for factual inaccuracies and updated on October 9, 2013)

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