After a gap of over three decades, India got a new National Education Policy (NEP) in 2020. Of several other things, the policy document explicitly puts emphasis on education for children aged 3-6 years through Anganwadi centers, which are rural child care establishments within India’s public healthcare system.

The debate about NEP 2020 so far has not highlighted the issues related to Early Child Care and Education (ECEE) and Anganwadi services. A deep-dive into this could help our policy planners and academics get a better idea about the challenges in Anganwadi centres, in the context of rejuvenation of the early education regime.

Anganwadis through the years

Efforts towards building a holistic ECEE system in India dates back to the freedom struggle when Gandhians, Gijubhai Badheka and Tarabai Modak, started the Indian version of pre-school centers in Gujarat, as English Montessori schools excluded Indian students. The curricula in these centers mainly focused on play, drawing, painting, socialisation and group activities, rather than books, for children below seven years.

After independence, India launched Anganwadi centers under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in 1975 on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. These were aimed at catering to six important needs of expecting and lactating mothers and children of 0-6 years of age: supplementary nutrition, nutrition and health education, immunisation, health check-up, referral services and pre-school non-formal education for children of age 3-6 years.

An Anganwadi centre in Patna, Bihar | Photo: Dana Schmidt, Flickr

Later, adolescent girls not attending schools were also provided supplementary nutrition and other services in the Anganwadis under the ICDS’ Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls (RGSEAG)-SABLA programme. The current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has now rechristened the entire ICDS scheme as ‘Anganwadi Services’.

At present, a network of 1.4 million Anganwadis cater to 80 million children under the 7076 ICDS projects. Undernutrition and education continue to be twin challenges in India’s effort to improve its human development. Achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3 and 4 – ‘Good Health and Well-Being’ and ‘Quality Education’ – requires India to focus on health and education sectors, and the ICDS is a potent intervention in that regard.

Structural and logistical gaps

India’s Anganwadis serve as a lifeline to many children, specifically those belonging to underprivileged sections of the society. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) for 2015-16, among children under six years of age benefitting from ICDS services, 59.1 per cent and 39.8 per cent live in rural and urban areas, respectively.

In urban areas, such benefit accrues to slum residents and poor neighbourhoods. According to the NFHS-4 report, every three out of five children under six years of age from Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) households use at least one service from Anganwadis. As per the report, further, the rural, poor and disadvantaged social group identity of children only aggravate their vulnerability in terms of growth retardation, underweight, wasting and anaemia.

The Comprehensive National Nutritional Survey (CNNS) report released in 2019 echoes a similar impression with the prevalence of undernutrition among children of pre-school age (0-4 years age) being higher among children from rural areas, SC and ST households, and households from lower wealth quintiles. In addition, the prevalence of anaemia among adolescents of 10-19 years of age is another disturbing feature, with a greater disadvantage for girl children.

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Researchers have argued that there is scope for improving utilisation of various Anganwadi services in both rural and urban areas. However, according to the government’s own admission in the parliament and reports of NITI Aayog, the Anganwadi centers needs further strengthening to deliver on their mission. In a reply to a question on ICDS in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament), Union Minister of Women and Child Development (MoWCD), admitted to serious shortcomings in the ICDS infrastructure.

NITI Aayog’s own 2015 study also finds similar shortcoming in existing anganwadi centers. According to a Centre for Policy Research (CPR) report, only one in three Anganwadis was functioning from their own buildings and rest were community owned or rented or open spaces as on the end of March 2018.

It also highlighted that 12% of all Anganwadis in India were functioning in kutcha (mud) buildings, with the highest number being in Aurnachal Pradesh (100%), followed by Manipur (68%), West Bengal (37%), Jammu and Kashmir (35%), Madhya Pradesh (27% per cent), Karnataka (26%), Jharkhand (22%), and Bihar (20%). Worse, not all the Anganwadis have drinking water or toilet facilities in their premises. 

Anganwadi centre in Endla, Gujarat | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The NEP vision for Anganwadis

The NEP 2020 has mandated child friendly, well-designed, well-constructed and properly ventilated premise in Anganwadis to facilitate a conducive environment for imparting education in the formative years. It has prescribed that the first five years of education for a child of 3–8 years will constitute the foundational stage for education. It emphasises on Quality Child Care and Education (QCCE) in these formative years, especially below six years of age, when most of the child’s cognitive and intelligence develop.

The first three years of education will be in Anganwadi play schools and the next two years in a primary school. The mode of education in the first three years will be largely through play, discovery, and activity-based pedagogy. It will also introduce children to reading, writing, speaking, physical education, art, languages, science, and mathematics through light text books and interactive classroom learning. This vision is very much in line with the whole idea of setting up pre-school education in pre-independence India.  

Improving the efficacy for Anganwadi centres in imparting ECCE in early years will require qualified teachers. The NEP 2020 suggests training of Anganwadi teachers and workers by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). It recommends Anganwadi workers and teachers with qualifications of 10+2 and above for a six-month certificate programme in ECCE, while those with lower educational qualifications will be given a one-year diploma programme in the same.

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To ensure that the skill upgradation does not hamper delivery of other programmes, the NEP 2020 recommends these programmes through digital or distance mode using DTH channels and smartphones. The policy advocates creating dedicated state level cadres under school education to train, monitor and map the career of the Anganwadi workers and teachers. 

Anganwadi centers serve as an exclusive site with a reasonable spread all over the country. But there should be greater focus and emphasis on the most vulnerable communities in districts with the highest levels of child malnutrition, poverty and school dropouts.

Till date, Panchayats remain distant from the management of Anganwadis in any formal manner. The NITI Aayog also pointed out the need for local self-governments – Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) – to promote, monitor and sustain nutrition initiatives to ensure better convergence at the grassroots. It has recommended rewarding such bodies based on their performance in reducing or eradicating any form of malnutrition within their jurisdiction.

The need for geographical convergence is justified, given that out of 184 districts with high malnutrition in India under National Health Mission (NHM), only 39 districts are common in these three lists, that is, ICDS high malnutrition burden districts, ICDS World Bank Assisted System Strengthening and Nutrition Improvement Project (ISSNIP) and high focus districts under the NHM. 

Anganwadi centre in Kulei, Odisha | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, the NITI Aayog report indicates scope for programme convergence among 15 central ministries of the Indian government, apart from their state counterparts, to make nutritional interventions successful. There is immense scope for integrating efforts of central ministries and department with the state-level machinery.

For example, developing kitchen gardens in Anganwadi centers as per MoWCD’s advisory will need participation from state agriculture and horticulture departments, as seen in states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha and Jharkhand. Any initiative on improving the quality of education of children cannot happen without having in place the ways and means of ensuring better nutritional intake for them.

There is also a need for documenting successful convergence efforts, geographic as well as programme-wise, in anganwadi services across the nation, especially regarding ECEE. A recent report by KPMG, for instance, documents some of the successes of the Anganwadi centres in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Without adequate finances, the vision laid down in the NEP 2020 regarding foundational education for our children may remain far-fetched. The allocation for Anganwadi services for current financial year 2020-21 stands at Rs 20,532 crores as against Rs 18,391 crores in 2014-15, an increase of 10.4% in nominal terms.

However, experts feel that most of these increase are nominal without inflationary adjustment and a major share of it may be on account of salaries or honorariums of workers in Anganwadis. Overall, this fund may still be inadequate, given the shortfall in existing manpower and infrastructure that often results in denial of service to large number of beneficiaries.

In July, the government proposed to upgrade 20,000 Anganwadi centers across the country at a cost of Rs 4000 crore for the 2020-21 period. There are separate allocations for giving drinking water connection to 20.000 Anganwadi centers and toilets to 70,000 of them. Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), 41,283 such centers are proposed to be built in the years to come. These numbers clearly indicate the need for improvement in infrastructure in Anganwadi centers to realise the NEP’s vision.

COVID-19 and Anganwadis

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has re-emphasised the need for better infrastructure for ICDS with adequate space for social distancing and hygiene. Some states took initiatives to impart ECEE during the pandemic. Odisha (‘Mo Pratibha’ programme), Gujarat (‘Umabare Anganwadi’) and Tamil Nadu are some of the states that devised innovative digital-based solutions to impart ECEE during the pandemic.

So far, supplementary food has overshadowed Anganwadi services. But there is a need for equal focus on education for better human capital formation as well. Making additional resources available for Anganwadis makes sense as the Global Nutrition Report 2015 estimates that for investment in nutrition, there is a benefit-cost ratio of 16:1 for 40 low and middle-income countries, which includes India.

To sum up, the Anganwadi centers in India, the largest institutional network of its kind in the world, has helped improve nutritional outcomes for women and children to a great extent. But its contribution on preparing young children for formal education is less visible.

Now the NEP 2020 has identified the Anganwadi centers as focal points for imparting education to children below six years. This undoubtedly needs massive investment to develop the infrastructure of existing centers, both in term of physical infrastructure and human resources, and also provide the necessary equipment to make these centers adapt to undertake training and education through ICE modes. This may be crucial to continue ECCC during times of pandemics or natural disasters.

India spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on the Anganwadi system. This has given unparalleled dividends on the nutrition front. But increased allocation is inevitable if the government wants to strengthen this system and take it to more people. Strengthening financial resources for local bodies and their engagement in effective functioning of Anganwadis would go a long way to ensure the well-being of children, adolescents and women.

Involving charitable institutions, philanthropists and corporates to adopt the Anganwadi centers, especially in high focus districts, will be helpful in complementing state effort. Provision of resources and involvement of multiple stakeholders may hold the key to a better outcome for India’s frontline national child care system. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Author’s note: The Author is grateful to Professor Udaya Shankar Mishra, who teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, for his suggestions.

Featured image: A health check-up underway in an Anganwadi centre in Baggad, Madhya Pradesh | DFID, Flickr