India’s crèche scheme and the laws that govern childcare facilities | Explained 
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How has the 2006 National Crèche Scheme fared? How many women make use of crèche services? How do childcare services impact women’s participation in the labour force? 

September 07, 2023 06:04 pm | Updated 06:04 pm IST

Image for representational purpose only.

Image for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

In 2008, a survey of women working in Tamil Nadu’s Viluppuram district raised a question— can quality childcare facilities increase and sustain women’s participation in the Indian economy? “If there were someone to take care of my child,” one woman said, “why would I not go to work? Is [the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] not important for my very survival?”

The Karnataka Government recently drew attention to this link. It announced the opening of childcare centres across 4,000 gram panchayats under the Koosina Mane scheme. The scheme is for women with children between six months and six years, who are employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), as well as for those who live in the area. This “essential public infrastructure” has a bearing not only on women’s economic agency and well-being, but would positively impact children’s health and education, evidence shows.

Daycare facilities across different sectors respond to the complex realities of women’s unpaid work and their diminishing presence in the workforce. Gendered roles assign childcare responsibilities to women, often binding young mothers to the household. It keeps them from meaningfully participating in the economy, or in other cases fully dropping out, congealing into India’s low female labour force participation rates, which dropped from 32% in 2005 to 19% in 2021, per data (Men’s participation, on the other hand, has gradually improved).

The Hindu looks at the role crèches play in regulating women’s mobility within the economy, and how inadequate funding and poor compliance with rules have shaped childcare infrastructure.

The National Crèche Scheme

Several policies between 1986 and 2005 recognised the need for childcare, culminating in the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for the Children of Working Mothers (RGNCS) in 2006. The Union Government has since reformulated the framework twice: once, in 2017, when RGNCS was discontinued and implemented as the centrally-sponsored ‘National Crèche Scheme’ (NCS), and then, in 2022, when the NCS was revised and subsumed as part of the Palna’ scheme under Mission Shakti, “to provide day-care facilities for children (six months to six years) of working mothers and to improve nutrition and health status of children.”

The scheme provides support to women of low-income groups who go to work at least 15 days a month, or six months a year. They can avail of crèche facilities available for 7.5 hours a day, 26 days a month. The subsidised facilities charge ₹20 a month per child for families below the poverty line, and between ₹100-200 for other families. Each crèche is required to provide “holistic development of children,” a space tasked with providing quality nutrition, sleep, education and “stimulation” activities. A creche of 25 children, say, should at least have one creche worker, helper and doctor, the NCS guidelines note.

The NCS falls under the umbrella of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) under the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD). Per the revised policy, 60% of funding comes from the Union Government, 30% from State Government and 10% from individual NGOs. State Governments were made responsible for making, enforcing and monitoring the relevant rules. 

The objectives as listed under the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for the Children of Working Mothers.

The objectives as listed under the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for the Children of Working Mothers.

Data shows more than 50% of the workforce under MGNREGA schemes are women, with most of them young and single mothers who have to take care of their children.

There’s no national aggregate count on how many women in the informal or formal sector make use of crèche services. Independent studies have, however, found a correlation between the presence of childcare facilities and women’s employment. A 2018 study surveying creche facilities at NREGA work sites concurred that work opportunities provided under the NREGA were “made less attractive because of the absence/insufficiencies of childcare at worksites.”

Conversely, if services were made available, almost 90% of women showed interest in working. The absence of facilities acted as a “pullback for women, who would like to work but do not have a place where they might leave their children free of worry, or at least creates problems for women who go to work but have to arrange for childcare themselves,” the study noted.

What laws govern childcare facilities?

MGNREGA “is the only Act in the country that legalises support for childcare in the unorganised sector, by including the provision for crèches and availability of safe drinking water in it,” the 2018 paper noted. It “recognises both the work-related rights of women, as well as their right to provide adequate nutrition and care for their infants.”

Later, a key aspect of the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act of 2017 was to include provisions for crèche facilities at the place of work in every establishment with 50 or more employees. The amendment sparked confusion about who would bear the cost of such facilities and the minimum standards of care, resolved by a detailed set of guidelines from the Ministry of Women and Child Development in November 2018. It specified the crèche facility must be available to “all employees including temporary, daily wage, consultant and contractual personnel”, and the facility should operate on an eight- to 10-hour shift. The Maternity Benefit Act also entitles women to four visits a day and intervals for rest. Moreover, the new amendment required State Governments to frame rules regarding the crèche facilities. Karnataka notified its rules in 2020; Haryana, Maharashtra and Kerala have published draft rules, soliciting comments.

The new Labour Code on Social Security also requires the central government, State governments, NGOs or private entities to provide services, with the crèche facility located within the establishment or at an appropriate distance “such that it is easily accessible to the women employees including a woman employee working from home”. 

Indian labour laws have some of the “most elaborate maternity entitlements,” says Antara Rai Chowdhury, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. “The issue is that they are not universal. The eligibility criteria lead to the exclusion of several women workers such as home-based workers, vendors, domestic workers, and others who are self-employed, not in registered enterprises, or in facilities that have (far) less than 50 workers.”

Childcare, as referenced under other laws
The Factories Act of 1948: Employers of factories with more than 30 women workers shall maintain a suitable room or rooms for the use of children under the age of six years. “Such rooms shall provide adequate accommodation, adequate light, and ventilation, maintained in a clean and hygienic condition, and shall be under the charge of women trained in the care of children and infants,” the provisions outline.
The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996: This requires a facility if 50 female building workers are employed in a construction site. 
States like Maharashtra and Gujarat have identified creche-related provisions in their respective Shops and Establishment Acts.

The functioning of India’s crèches

Between 2015 and 2020, more than 72% of functioning crèches have shut down, per government data. Under the erstwhile RGNCS, 23,588 crèches were operational as of 2015. The number dropped to 18,040 in FY 2017-18; 8,018 in FY 2018-19; and 6,458 in FY 2019-20, according to a February 2022 circular by the MWCD.

Insufficient and delayed allocation of funds has remained a key hindrance to the scheme’s functioning. The budget estimates for NCS were also revised between 2017 and 2020; the original ₹200 crore estimate was brought down to ₹65 cores, the ministry said in a Rajya Sabha reply dated July 2019. Further, only a small proportion of the allocated budget was utilised: out of the revised budget allocation of ₹4 crore, no money was spent in FY 2022.

The crèches were closed during the COVID-19 lockdown and hence no funds were allocated during 2021-22, minister Smriti Irani said in a Lok Sabha reply this year. A report by The Hindu Businessline, however, found some NGO-run crèches were still functional and catered to daily wage labourers who worked during the lockdown.

Moreover, there is poor compliance with rules under the Maternity Benefits Act, per a 2018 report prepared by the VV Giri National Labour Institute, an autonomous body under the government. It found that 75% of the employers in the formal sector interviewed said that there are no crèche facilities provided in their establishments (most of which had more than 50 employees). Further, there is no centralised data maintained “of firms employing more than fifty employees and where crèche is established,” the Ministry said in the February 2022 communique.

In the informal sector, a joint study by Ms. Chowdhury and her colleagues surveying almost 300 women found they make “negligible” use of childcare facilities largely “due to a lack of availability.” The 2018 study, which looked at creche facilities in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, found that 53% of women in Udaipur were aware of the provision of crèche facilities, but only 0.7% said that a crèche was actually available.

Where available, there were operational challenges: some daycare centres lacked staff or infrastructure to manage young children (who need a special diet or close supervision), and the timing was incompatible with the working times of women in varied sectors. “Women may prefer the creche to be close to their workplace... so they could check in or feed them in between work,” the study pointed out. Space constraints, lack of flexible work practices and the cost of maintenance of the crèche are also other issues plaguing infrastructure.

Women’s access is also shaped by familial acceptance. Women were told they would be responsible “if anything happens to the child,” which discouraged them from using these facilities, Ms. Chowdhury adds.

The government has proposed piloting and scaling Anganwadi centres into creche facilities, setting up creches at key work sites and community-based volunteer childcare arrangements. The ICDS framework, while noting that Anganwadi centres can help, noted additional requirements of “physical infrastructure, human resource, care-related equipment and facilities for children below 3 years of age.” Per a January 2023 notification, the government enhanced the existing expenditure ceiling of MGNREGS in convergence with the ICDS scheme.

How do childcare facilities impact working women?

Women face a ‘triple burden’ of house chores, paid labour and child care. Working women between 15 to 60 years old spend twice the amount on unpaid domestic work -- caregiving, cleaning, cooking -- compared to wage-earning men, an analysis of India’s Time Use Survey showed.

A 2017 World Bank working paper found urban women with children less than six years of age had lower participation in the workforce, noting that “a culture that instils the responsibility of childcare so overwhelmingly into women, especially in their role as mothers, also makes it hard for them to enter and stay in market work.”

The pandemic, and subsequent closure of schools and daycare centres, meant working women were responsible for childcare at home, causing further dropping out from the labour force. In the informal sector, the ‘motherhood penalty’ plays out differently, where women make concessions by taking up flexible, low-paying work or being self-employed. This has a bearing on both women’s and the child’s well-being, literature shows. Children are exposed to hazardous working conditions (such as heat or extreme weather), animal and insect bites, or lack of nutrition and clean drinking water.

“The daycare centres act as centres of nutrition and early childhood development, and discriminating against children’s access — based on the mother’s working status — could create unequal learning and health outcomes.  ”Antara Rai Chowdhury, Indian Institute of Human Settlements

A global review of policies in low- and middle-income countries found that welfare schemes fail to think of a mother as an active member of the economy; quality, centre-based childcare instead sees women as more than ‘mothers’ and assigns value to ‘women’s work’.

“This messaging is vital, as it acknowledges that women are not just mothers but also active contributors to the workforce, an aspect often missed in public programmes,” Ms. Chowdhury and Divya Ravindranath of IIHS argued in The Hindu. A 2020 study in Rajasthan found childcare services reduced women’s time on childcare by 16 minutes a day and allowed women to allocate more time to paid work. Due to strict gender norms and limited work opportunities, however, the quality of work and income remained largely unaffected.

Research also concludes that childcare has a bearing on economic welfarel: it not only allows women to expand the workforce, but enables them to be more productive at work, or opt for more desirable opportunities. Accessible and affordable creche facilities, experts argue, can instead reap a “triple dividend”: where women’s work and mobility are encouraged, women are integrated into the economy and maternal and child health is simultaneously looked after.

A more long-term, unquantifiable outcome is a cultural shift, where initiatives like Koosina Mane move care work outside of the household, thus also helping to redistribute the gendered burden of childcare. As Jean D’Cunha wrote in a paper, “There is a need to go beyond recognising and reducing unpaid care work for women in ways that shed stereotypes... as this is central to gender equality and women’s rights.”

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