Public provisioning of early childhood education: Path to employment of women for higher economic growth

Demands of routine care and feeding of children are heavy on caregiver


Dismal schooling system, high youth unemployment and women’s low participation in the labour force are issues that have been flagged as impediments to Indian economy. If we have to overcome these obstacles, the incoming government needs to accept the not-so-hidden linkages between these and make the investments long jettisoned in social infrastructure.

How is ECCE is connected to youth and women’s employment?

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 showed that only about 25 per cent of 14 to 18-year-olds in Class VIII could read at a second-grade level, and many struggled with basic math—57 per cent in Class VIII and 43 per cent of undergraduates couldn't do simple division. These educational gaps highlight the challenges industries face in finding skilled workers. Investing in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) can significantly improve these outcomes. Research shows that children receiving quality ECCE perform better in later academic stages, exhibiting enhanced reading and math skills. To harness the demographic dividend and boost economic growth, it is crucial for the government to prioritise comprehensive education from birth to 18 years, starting with strong ECCE initiatives.

The formalisation of ECCE is also critical for women. As caregiving duties in households primarily fall on women and girls, caring for young children exacerbates women’s time burden. The demands of routine care and feeding of children under three are heavy on the caregiver. Women from working class and poor families, unlike middle-class and upper-class women, do not have the resources to send their children to private pre-primary schools or hire domestic help for child care. It adds to their existing unpaid work which already includes domestic work, subsistence work, agricultural activities and non-farm enterprises.

Consequently, many women with children below the age of six stay out of paid work, engage in part-time paid work, or take up home-based work. Women in paid work are in far worse situations as they are forced to juggle the triple burdens of domestic work, childcare and paid work. Women experience acute time poverty and stress, and as a result, often have to compromise on livelihood options and opportunities to learn and grow.

Challenges in the current policy

The Early Childcare and Education (ECCE) Policy of 2013 and the New Education Policy, 2020 recognise that learning begins at birth and continues during education in the school system. The United Nations Committee of Rights of Children (CRC) defines “early childhood” as the period from birth to eight years. ECCE includes four components, namely health, nutrition, care and protection, and play and learning/education.

The NEP 2020, while correctly pointing out the need for ECCE, makes scant mention of the Right to Education Act, 2009. By omitting ECCE from the RTE Act, the early development of the child cannot be considered an enforceable right. The early care and education of children is therefore, left loosely regulated and in most cases, inaccessible to people from marginalised and low-income backgrounds.

India's infrastructure for Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) is inadequate, struggling with underfunded and limited resources despite high demands. As of March 31, 2021, there were 13.87 lakh Anganwadi centres (AWCs) providing essential services to 8 crore children under six, which is overseen by the Ministry of Women and Child Development under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). These centres offer nutrition, health monitoring, and non-formal pre-school education.

However, budget allocations for these centres have not increased sufficiently, even after the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 emphasized AWCs as primary ECCE providers. Furthermore, the number of crèches has drastically decreased due to budget cuts, from 25,000 in 2013 to just 3,900 in 2023, serving far fewer children. The NEP recognizes the need for cognitive development through play for children aged 0-3 but assumes that family and community can provide necessary stimulation—a challenging expectation given the rise of nuclear families and gender-based work norms, which limit the interaction and learning opportunities for young children. This gap in early stimulation is likely to lead to significant cognitive deficits, affecting children's long-term educational and employment prospects.

The way forward

To ensure every child below six years benefits from early childhood care and education (ECCE), it is imperative to establish this as a constitutional right, as recommended by the Law Commission in 2015. This legal backing is crucial for enforcing consistent ECCE delivery across the nation. Furthermore, adopting the International Labour Organisation's '5 R framework for Decent Care Work' would revolutionize care work dynamics. This framework aims to recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work within families, while rewarding and representing those engaged in paid care work, establishing a fair and supportive environment for all care workers.

Adequate funding is essential to support the infrastructural and human capital needs of ECCE. Commensurate budgetary allocations should be prioritised to develop and maintain crèches and Anganwadi centres (AWCs), ensuring they are well-equipped and staffed with trained professionals. This investment not only enhances the quality of care and education provided but also supports the professional development of those in the ECCE sector, uplifting the overall standard of early childhood education.

Moreover, the government should expand public childcare services to alleviate the burden on working women, facilitating their active participation in the labour force. This includes ensuring accessible and reliable daycare and crèche facilities alongside enforcing policies that guarantee maternity leave and proper working conditions for all women, particularly in the ECCE sector. By addressing these areas, the government can significantly improve women's labour force participation and contribute to a more gender-equitable society.

Let us hope that the ensuing government recognizes that unless children are guaranteed quality care, learning and education from birth outside the family, neither the youth nor women will be able to contribute in a meaningful manner to achieve higher economic growth.

Radhika Desai is member of Alliance for right to ECD

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.

Join our WhatsApp Channel to get the latest news, exclusives and videos on WhatsApp