Part 2: Not equal from Birth
Presentation made at a meeting organised by Mazdoor Ekta Committee on 1 November 2020 on “Why not education of same quality for all?”
Scientific studies have established that 85% of a child’s total brain development occurs in the first six years of life. The attention a society pays to its children, from the time they are born and throughout their early childhood, shows how serious that society is towards the all-round development of the future generation.
Early childhood care and education is acknowledged as the foundation of learning. If all children must have the right to education of the same quality, then this must begin with early childhood care. All children must be well nourished and healthy. Their physical, mental and social capabilities need to be developed in an all-round manner. The majority of children in our country are denied this foundation. The National Education Policy 2020 accepts this fact. However, it does not explain why the majority of children are denied early childhood care and pre-school education of good quality.
On October 16, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 2020 was released. The Global Hunger Index score is calculated on four indicators. These are undernourishment; child wasting — the share of children under the age of five who have low weight for their height; child stunting — children under the age of five who have low height for their age; and child mortality – that is, the proportion of children who die before completing 5 years.
Seventeen countries were ranked joint first in this list. These seventeen include China, Cuba and Turkey. These countries had the least number of malnourished, hungry children as percentage of their population.
On paper, India has most impressive program and policies for ending malnutrition and hunger. However, the ground reality is that children are severely malnourished.
Among 107 countries ranked according to the severity of hunger, India’s rank is as low as 94. Hunger is more severe in India than in our neighbouring countries. It is more severe in India than in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Out of every hundred children below the age of 5, 37 children suffer from stunted growth. They have low height for their age. Out of every hundred children below the age of 5, 17 children are suffering from wasting. They have low weight compared to other children of their age. Both these are directly due to acute hunger and malnutrition. While this is the country average, the situation is much worse for children in poorer states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand.
How will children who are always hungry and extremely undernourished be able to study? How will they keep pace with other children who do not suffer from these problems?
The government of India launched the Integrated Child Development (ICDS) Program in 1975 (45 years ago), aimed at combating child hunger and malnutrition. The Anganwadi center is supposed to provide basic child care and mother care. It is supposed to address the needs of children under the age of six years. It is supposed to provide these young children with supplementary nutrition, health care, and pre-school education.
The stated objectives of Integrated Child Development Scheme include:
- To improve the nutritional and health status of children below the age of six years.
- To lay the foundation for the proper psychological, physical and social development of the child.
- To reduce the incidence of mortality, morbidity, malnutrition and school dropouts.
The results on the ground show that these stated objectives remain unfulfilled. Why have they not been achieved?
ICDS centres are managed by a hierarchy of administrators including: Anganwadi Workers and Anganwadi Helpers, also known as Sevika and Sahayika; Supervisors, Child Development Project Officers at the block level; and District Programme Officers at the District Collectorate. There are a large number of vacancies in sanctioned posts.
As of March 2017, 39 per cent of sanctioned positions for Child Development Project Officer and 35 per cent of sanctioned positions for Supervisors were vacant across the country. Over two lakh posts of Anganwadi workers and helpers are also lying vacant. This is clear evidence that the Government is not serious about implementing this program.
According to the statement of the Minister of Women and Child Development in the Rajya Sabha on November 21, 2019, there are 14 lakh sanctioned Anganwadi centers in India of which 13.77 lakh are operational.
Anganwadi centers are categorized into main and mini centers. Each center is run by one Anganwadi worker, with the assistance sometimes of one helper. About 26 lakh Anganwadi workers and helpers are responsible for providing Early Childcare and Education to 17 crore children below the age of 6 in our country.
Anganwadi workers and helpers are loaded with enormous responsibilities. The Anganwadi worker has the responsibility to survey all the families in neigbourhood, enroll eligible children, ensure that food is served on time every day, conduct the preschool education activities, organise immunization sessions with Auxiliarry Nurse Midwifes, make home visits to pregnant mothers, and many other activities. She is supposed to run the Anganwadi. The Anganwadi Helper assists the Anganwadi worker in her tasks. Her main duties are to bring children to the Anganwadi, cook food for them, and help with the maintenance of the centre.
While they are supposed to perform all these tasks, Anganwadi workers and their helpers are not even treated as workers. The government calls them volunteers, and honorary workers. They are denied minimum wages and other rights that belong to workers. According to the Ministry of Women and Child developments latest announcement, Anganwadi workers are paid only Rs. 3500 to 4500 per month, while her helper is paid the measly amount of Rs. 2250 per month. How are these workers supposed to take care of themselves and their families on such a small salary?
Anganwadi workers and their helpers have repeatedly been demanding that their rights as workers. In the conditions of Covid 19 pandemic, they have been demanding that the government treat them like other front line workers, and give them cover of health insurance against death by covid 19. Their struggle forced the Central Government to accept this demand. But their demand for minimum wages is yet to be fulfilled.
What do all these facts show? They show that those who are ruling our country do not really care about the children of workers and peasants. They show that all the wonderful things which are stated in official policy documents are not meant to be implemented at all. The result is that the majority of children in our country do not receive good quality early childhood care. They are at a great disadvantage right when they enter the first standard in primary school.
The most recent Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER 2019 Early Years) shows that only 46% of students of 1st standard in government schools can read the alphabet. Only 54% can recognize the numbers from 1 to 9.
Only half the children who are in the 3rd standard are able to read the 1st standard text books. The other half are at least two years behind where the curriculum expects them to be.
Nearly 30% of students in Standard III cannot recognize two digit numbers, which the syllabus says they must do in Standard I.
Such children find it very difficult to keep up with the rest of the students. This is a major reason for large number of students dropping out of school.
One major reason for this is the fact that the majority of children, do not have access to Early Childhood care in their first six years.
The National Education Policy, 2020 estimates that over 5 crore children studying in elementary school do not have the ability to read and understand simple text, and they cannot do simple addition and subtraction. They are functionally illiterate. It goes on to warn that if remedial action is not taken immediately, then about 10 crore children could join the ranks of the illiterate in a few years. But what is that remedial action?
The government claims that it will expand and strengthen Anganwadis with high quality infrastructure, play equipment and well trained Anganwadi workers as teachers. How can we believe these promises when at the same time, the government is refusing to recognize the Anganwadi workers as workers and pay them even minimum wages? It is overloading them with all kinds of work so that they will not be able to fulfill their responsibility of educating children in the preschool years.
As far as infrastructure is concerned, as on September 2016, 30% of Anganwadi centres in the country did not have any drinking water facilities and 37% had no toilet facilities. When this is the real condition, how can we believe that the Government will invest money to provide high quality infrastructure?
The ruling class is not really interested in remedying the situation. There is no plan to narrow the gap between children who go to Anganwadis and those who are enrolled in lower KG and upper KG in private schools. When there is no equal standard even at pre-school stage, how can equal standard of education be achieved at higher stages?
The division of children between those who have the facilities to develop their foundation, and those who do not, starts right from birth in our country. A small minority of children of parents who can afford high fees go to highest quality private pre-schools, where they are developed in an all-round manner. Others go to lower quality private nursery schools so as to prepare for admission to the 1st standard in a private school. The vast majority of children go to government run Anganwadis. Many children of poor families do not go to any type of preschool.
Thus, unequal treatment begins right from birth. And it grows from bad to worse as children grow up and attend regular schools. The new National Education Policy is not going to change this situation.
Ever since India gained political independence, people have been promised that all children will receive free school education of uniformly good quality.
The Kothari Commission, set up in 1964, recommended that education of the same quality must be provided to all children irrespective of their caste, creed, community, language, gender, income level and social status. The Report submitted by this commission in 1966 stated:
“The system should be maintained at an adequate level of quality and efficiency so that no parent would ordinarily feel any need to send his child to institutions outside the system…”
If the rulers were serious about establishing a Common School System, they would have ensured Early Childhood care and education of the same quality to all children, in the formative years of 0-6, before they enter the first standard.
The rulers are not serious about this. They do not care if mothers and their children die during child birth, or crores of children are deprived of the joy of childhood. They do not care for the children of workers and peasants. That is why there are no creches in factories and workplaces where working women can leave their children. They consider the workers and peasants and their children as merely beasts of burden to be exploited to the bone, squeezed like a lemon, and then thrown out. They do not regard the children of workers and peasants as the most precious asset of society, the future of our society.
The struggle against the old feudal order gave rise to democratic movements and the establishment of uniform standards of school education in many countries of the world. Why has this not been achieved in India?
The reason is that our society still suffers from the notion that only some people deserve to be well educated. This notion has its origin in the age-old caste system. It was deliberately perpetuated by the British rulers because it served their interest. It continues to be perpetuated in independent India.
Those who have accumulated enormous wealth and exercise dominant influence over the government do not want to put an end to the social hierarchy. The corporate houses want to use the availability of cheap labour in our country to their advantage in their global competition. This is the real reason why education remains the privilege of a few!
The workers and peasants who make up the vast majority of the population want their children to be better educated than their parents. To fulfill this desire, it is necessary to launch a truly mass movement for a common school system. Such a system is essential for India to march on the high road of civilization. Universal Early Childhood Care and Education of the highest quality provided to all children is the most crucial part of such a system.
Education is not a privilege. It is a universal right that belongs to all. Let us unite around this demand and arouse all sections of our people to fight for its realization.
Education of equally good quality is our right!
Let us unite and fight to establish a common pre-school and school system in our country!