There is a constant need to reflect on the purpose and ways to ensure life-long learning for children and adults. In this direction, in 2015, at UN assembly, all nations committed themselves to achieving integrated and indivisible 17 sustainable development goals with 169 targets by 2030. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are centred around five ‘Ps’’ – development of people, planet, prosperity, peace through partnership considering the sustainable development for both people and planet. SDGs, post Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), have specific thrust on poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, gender equality, clear water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below sea, life on land, peace, Justice and strong institutions and partnership. It was acknowledged for the first time in the history that countries should make a commitment towards common action and endeavours for a universal and board policy agenda to ensure sustainable development for all.

In this context, children emerge as significant change agents to drive and influence sustainable development hence the early childhood development phase. Early Childhood Development (ECD) is a phase that focuses on children from pre-birth to below 6 years for their holistic development (brain, body, socio-emotional). Research has established that period of early childhood represents the most significant and demanding stage in the developmental continuum of an individual. In fact, engagement with children in early childhood phase has the ability to promote gender equality and reduce other vulnerabilities & inequalities. The experiences in early life and the environments in which young children live shape their brain architecture thereby their ability to understand stereotypes and biases hence becoming a healthy and productive member of society.

In case of India, a majority of children from deprived communities lack exposure and quality stimulation during childhood both at home and community level. An estimate suggests that despite multiple efforts there are 10 million children under six years (29 percent of total children population) who are facing development loss. As per World Bank, in India, less than 2 percent children have basic requirements in sufficient measure in their most critical years – the right food, proper health care, early learning opportunities, and clean water and sanitation. The absence of these essential requirements can not only have an irreversible impact on the child’s development but also undermine the country’s future economic productivity. It is believed that ensuring access to education in the early years can raise adult wages drastically. Therefore, this phase of development requires multiple inputs and engagements- health, nutrition, protection, care & stimulation, education etc. Hence, investment in this phase is considered as one of the cost-effective ways to achieve sustainable development.

Within early childhood development framework, to address inequities and life-long learning, early education becomes significant for a country like India that has 35 million children (0-14 years). In two decades, India will have youngest and working population in the world. Historically, recognizing a holistic need for young children, Government of India had launched Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) in 1975. Under the scheme, 13 lakhs Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) have been established in every corner of the country till date- the only public institution that aims to reach all children under six years. However, provisions for early childhood care and education under AWCs could not reach to all children due to limited vision, poor quality of services, and investment. Another historic effort was made by enactment of “The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act” which ensured free and quality education for all children between 6-14 years. Right to Education (RTE) Act recognized the importance of early education through Article 11, “With a view to prepare children above the age of three years for elementary education and to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years, the appropriate authority will make necessary arrangement to provide free preschool education for such children (RTE Act- 2009)” however in very limiting manner. The act did not recognize early childhood education as a fundamental right for children under six years but merely a condition. To ensure the full potential of children in line with sustainable development, there is a need to articulate a vision for early childhood education along with other essential measures so that it could contribute to 2030 global agenda. For a country like India, early childhood care and education should be recognized as a fundamental right to ensure high investments for quality health, nutrition, care and education provision for all children especially those facing multiple marginalisations. There is a need to acknowledge that marginalized children especially Dalit and adivasis require a solid foundation in early years. Smart investments like these in India’s youngest children, upon whom the future of the country rests, are crucial as India seeks to transform itself into the human resource capital of the world.

Posted By : Geeta Verma, Team Leader, Girls Education Program