Are we doing enough for our children? (Times of India )

Each year, India celebrates Children’s Day on November 14th in remembrance of the first Prime Minister of India, Chacha Nehru and his love for children. We tend to – celebrate this day by giving children treats, presents, and promise them a brighter tomorrow. We all remember our Prime Minister’s pledge of ‘Ache Din’!

Having worked for ChildFund for over 6 years and been close to children in communities, both rural and urban, I feel the need to share, with honesty, what we as a country have achieved, or not. Let’s take stock on the state of child health in India, a situation that is improving at a glacial pace, excruciatingly slow and the indicators have been amplified because of COVID-19.

The country has put in adequate resources to make significant progress across different facets of child progress. In basic healthcare, for instance, India has achieved progress when it comes to reduction in Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) with its share of the global IMR burden coming down from one third of new-born deaths in 1990 to below a quarter of total new-born deaths today. According to the National Health Family Survey (NHFS) 4, almost 80% new-born Indian infants are of a healthy weight above 2.5 kgs, a 10% improvement from the previous decade. However, as the child grows, the reality changes – undernutrition levels keep increasing during the first two years of life.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020 report has placed India at 94th position among 107 countries, much behind Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. India represents almost 24% of the world’s malnourished people. Even today more than 1/3rd of Indian children are stunted and a majority of children under 5 are anaemic. The decline of stunting seen in between NFHS 3 and 4 has been from 48% to 38%, in a decade (2005-6 and 2015-16) which is far from impressive – about one percentage point per year. And this number may become starker as the world’s largest school lunch program, the mid-day meal scheme, has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

But even before the virus disrupted the country, India’s performance left a lot to be desired. A UNICEF report for 2020 shows that India has matched the global average for Under-five Mortality Rates (U5MR). However, neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, both countries with a lower per capita income than India’s $1,900 ($1,250 and $830, respectively) have U5MR of 31, compared to U5MR of 34 for India, outperforming India on this key development indicator. Both these countries had higher U5MR in 1990 than India (144 and 140 respectively vs 126 in India).

Poor nutrition and ill health affects children’s learning abilities and preparedness for schooling. India has improved in providing universalising primary education, improving enrolment and completion rates, and addressing gender disparity. While, no more than 2.8 % of children are out of school in India, such improvements, however, mask latent issues in the country’s rural school network, where numeracy and literacy standards remain sub-par and in many instances lower than standards recorded 10 years ago in 2008. At least 25% of Indian school children in the four-eight age group do not have age-appropriate cognitive and numeracy skills according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), in early 2020. For example, under a third of 14 to 16-year-olds (29.3%) were able to calculate the 10% discount applied to a T-shirt costing Rs 300. Amongst children below six, just 37.4% of children are able to recognize at least letters and only 25.6% can do additions, according to the report. However, I believe that even if we achieve targets set in ASER reports, our children would be at the lowest benchmark of ‘Social-emotional learning skills’. I think we should set aspirational targets, not the barest minimum, if we wish to see our children and young people excel in life! We do this for our children then why not for the deprived, vulnerable, and excluded ones?

The Indian education system has been badly affected by the entry of the coronavirus pandemic – millions of children will never return to education because of economic factors, changing priorities and the digital divide.

Now let’s move from basic healthcare and education which is every citizen’s right. The country still accounts for one in three child marriages globally. During the pandemic, perhaps this has further escalated. Various researches state that due to the global economic slowdown, globally 2.5 million more girls are at risk of early marriage by 2025. Almost 4% of our children, i.e., 10.1 million, are child labourers in India; out of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls. And these are just two issues of child protection amongst many more! These burning issues need a firefighting approach!

While we can congratulate ourselves for the progress we’ve made so far, we need to honestly accept that the progress has been extremely slow. This is about lost childhood and youth – times that are not reversible!

Higher investment in early health interventions for children would mean better overall immunity and health and cognitive abilities which can aide in healthy and productive life later. Better cognitive abilities teamed with nourishment and proper pedagogical approach would in-turn help a child be better at education leading to a secure future. A young, skilled person, has better employability options which reduces domestic violence and overall crime, improves nutrition, health, education and lifestyle for future generations. Improved health also means reduced burden on the government, which would mean lesser expenditure on health in the future. But more importantly, it makes absolute sense for a nation to invest in its children and orient its policies towards their development because every child truly deserves a chance at a better life.

The first step is to acknowledge that we have only scratched the surface of the issue and that we have a journey to undertake before we achieve development that is inclusive of all our children that goes beyond. While it is important to continue to cater to the basic needs that eludes masses, we need to commit beyond just providing nutrition, education and skills to improve children’s lives; we need to think towards infusing children with democratic understanding, creativity, empathy, climate resilience and beyond. We owe this to our children.

Children’s Day is not just about celebrating a day with marginalized children, the significance of this day is beyond philanthropy. This shouldn’t be just a tick mark on a paper on doing an activity mandated as per the CSR law or a donation to make us feel gratified. With such acts we are only raising expectations of the families, who need us to stand with them, but not giving back what they deserve as humans. Such short-span activities don’t changes lives. We are confusing handout philanthropy with strategized long-term interventions towards sustainable results. We need to change our mind-sets. Why are we satisfied and feel altruistic with small one-off, ad hoc handouts while the call for action is much bigger and urgent?

Governments, corporates and civil societies need to invest in a children-centric progress index, innovations, policies and interventions that are attuned to local conditions that invoke a sense of innovation and pragmatic at the same time. There will be mistakes, but these will be lessons to be learned from. There are many inspiring examples amidst us – Sonam Wangchuk, the now-famous educational reformist from Ladakh founded the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, aimed at reforming the educational system, addressing the gaps in modern education, their lack of focus and the cultural confusion. Or the Shri A.M.M. Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre, created by the scientist C V Seshadri, who left IIT Kanpur to create the laboratory near a slum. He kept says, “Imagine if a slum were to re-write the Constitution of India, how would law, livelihood, and economics look?”

But what we need to do, what we must do, is to look towards a brighter future for our children. Let us come together and celebrate these precious lives! Providing Roti aur Kapda is not enough; leave aside Makan as it is a far-fetched dream for many. Yeh dil mange more! Investing in our children means investing in our future, let us reimagine a better future for every child.

Be a Part of the Movement.