This is an excerpt from the sixth edition of the India Exclusion Report, a collaborative effort involving institutions and individuals working with a shared notion of social and economic equity, justice and rights. The report seeks to inform public opinion around exclusion and the role of the state and to influence policy-making towards creating a more inclusive, equitable and just society. The annual publication is anchored by the Centre for Equity Studies and edited by its director, Harsh Mander.

The pandemic has impacted the lives of people differently, depending on various socio-economic variables. Children, as some studies have shown, face threats to theirphysical, emotional and mental development due to the risk of infection, school closures, being deprived of mid-day-meals, the complexity of online education and restrictions on their mobility and outdoor recreational activities. Despite this, children have largely remained out of the purview of any meaningful discussions in public discourse.

This is true even in normal times, despite the fact that India is being the home to the largest population in the world. The country is home to 158.79 million children between the ages of 0-6 years. They account for 13.12% of India’s total population.

Early Childhood Development is a window of opportunity for the overall development not just for an individual but for the entire community. We must hold the state responsible for their plight, seek to strengthen the infrastructure for the amelioration of their situation and secure for children a life of dignity with equity and sustainability as a larger public good.

The future at stake

Early childhood is the most important stage in human development. Studies have established that the most rapid development of the brain occurs in the early years. In the earliest phase of life, new neural connections – shaped by genes and life experiences – are established at the rate of more than one million every second, the highest rate compared to all other stages in life. Therefore, the quality of nutrition, stimulation and nurturing care a child receives at this stage greatly impacts later development.

The first 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and the second birthday of the child provide a window of opportunity that has a profound impact in shaping happier, healthier and safer childhoods for optimal development. Intervention at this stage that provides equal opportunities with equity can help dismantle the vicious cycle of societal inequalities, structural poverty and widespread disparities.

In India, Early Childhood Development services are provided under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the country’s flagship child welfare programme, which includes the provision of Early Childhood Care and Education. It seeks to provide “supplementary nutrition, immunisation, health check-ups and referral services comprising preschool education, health & nutrition education to almost 30 million children under the age of 6 years, adolescent girls & expectant and nursing mothers all over the country”.

The strengthening and restructuring of this scheme was initiated through increased budgetary allocations during the 12th Five Year Plan that started in 2012. It promised a special focus on children under three years and pregnant and lactating mothers. There was also to be an increased focus on care and nutrition counselling services, with special attention to severely underweight children.

Children in Delhi wait to receive food from NGO volunteers. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

Though, the ICDS scheme allocation has increased from Rs 16,334.88 crore (as per the Budget Estimate 2018-’19) to Rs 19,427.75 in 2019-’20, access to these schemes is limited to only 48% of children between this age group. The most vulnerable and marginalised groups, comprising the 20% of the total child population between 3 years-5 years, are not enrolled in any formal public or private centres.

The findings of the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey in 2019, one of the largest surveys on nutrition to be conducted in India, throws light on the shocking state of India’s children and the non-fulfilment of their nutritional needs. The stunting of children under five (whose heights are lower than they should be for their age), a direct result of chronic malnutrition, has declined by only one-third between the years 1992 and 2016, and remains as high as 38.4%.

Although the survey pertains to data on nutrition alone, it provides a window into the larger picture of the dismal situation of young children in India.

In 2018, half of all under-five deaths in the world occurred in just five countries, with India and Nigeria alone accounting for about one-third of them, according to the World Health Organisation. UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children notes that in 2018, India reported 8.8 lakh deaths of children under five, the highest number in the world.

According to the Global Hunger Index released in 2019, India tops the list of the countries with highest wasting rate among children as a result of acute undernutrition. The report notes that around 90% of children in India between the age of 6 months and 23 months do not receive the minimum required nutrition.

This table shows some indicators of child health and nutrition at the all-India level.

Indicators of Child Health and Nutrition

National Family Health Survey 4  (2015-'16) (%) National Family Health Survey 3 (2005-'06) (%)
Infant mortality rate
Mortality rate for children under 5 50% 74%
Children under 5 who are stunted 38.4% 48%
Children under 5 who are wasted 21% 19.8%
Children under 5 who are underweight 35.8% 42.5%

Apart from the under-nutrition and other health challenges, the young children in India are exposed to other kinds of vulnerabilities that hinder their overall development. Among other things, they face everyday violence and abuse; they lack proper shelter, access to quality early childhood care and quality education; they do not receive due stimulation or opportunities for play; lack a proper adult caregiver. Thus the objectives of Early Childhood Development provisions must be seen in terms of holistic development of young children with its positive impacts on health, nutrition, early education, care, protection needs. These affect India’s social and economic progress with equity and equality.

Holding the state responsible

India is a signatory to legally binding international conventions such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, the Unted Nations’ Millenniun Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. More than this, the Constitution of India has made various provisions guaranteeing the rights of young children under the Fundamental rights (Articles 14, 15, 21, 21 A, 23 and 24), and the Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 39).

Despite these provisions, India has fallen short on fulfilling Early Childhood Development goals. In cases where families are unable to play their due role in childcare, it becomes important for the state to enable them to carry out this duty. But the lack of state intervention further marginalises these families and their children, throwing them into a vicious cycle of poverty and exclusion.

A wide range of interlinked issues impacts the lives of young children in India. These vary from health and nutrition and early learning to multiple marginalities emanating from poverty, gender, caste, class, location, access to services, lack of care, neglect, abuse and violence. The mother and child’s access to nutritious food, feeding practices for the child, immunisation from various diseases, clean drinking water, sanitation and hygiene are all essential to support good healthcare interventions.

There are regional variations. Some few states are doing better in providing ECD services than others.

Schoolchildren, who have missed their online classes due to a lack of internet facilities, listen to pre-recorded lessons over loudspeakers, in Dandwal village in Maharashtra. Credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

A comprehensive ECD framework in which the holistic needs of the young child are situated is the need of the hour. Policy has mostly focused on health and nutrition. But equally important dimensions like childcare and Early Childhood Education services have not been adequately addressed. Beside that, there are problems like programmes being inadequately implemented, insufficient budget allocations and money being under-utilised and a fragmentary approach while defining children’s needs and drafting laws.

One of the major problems is that these ECD rights are not justiciable as universal rights for all children. A report of the Law Commission notes that although various provisions by the state are relevant to the young child, they merely articulate promises and lack the status of law. They are not creating justiciable rights for the young child. The private provisioning of ECD services have further undermined the universal and equal access to ECD as an entitlement.

Universal provisioning of Early Childhood Development is one of the fundamental ways to ensure a dignified life for children. It brings positive outcomes in terms of economic growth and plays a crucial role in developing an equitable socially order. This must be located within the rationale of a public good requiring positive interventions from the state.

Research and drafting assistance for this article: Samreen Mushtaq and Radhika Sharma. Article Compiled by Sajid Ali.

Read the other excerpts from the India Exclusion Report for 2019-’20 here.