The National Education Policy has recommended the restructuring of the schooling years from 10+2 system to a 5+3+3+4 system. This connotes the integration of preschool into primary school which signifies the formalization of early childhood education. The Anganwadis that are the exclusive interface of the toddlers in rural and semi-urban India with the early childhood institutionalized program are going to be the key in realizing the stated goals of the NEP with regard to early childhood education.
The AWCs present a possibility as far as the early childhood development programs and their implementation on a meaningful scale is concerned but their even more significant role is in providing nutritional security to the rural population, especially children in the early years. In rural India, these centers are the only places where the health indicators of children are monitored with some regularity.
The institution of Anganwadi was introduced in 1975 under the Integrated Child Development Services. It was originally a program primarily aimed at improving the nutritional outcomes in children and ward off deprivation and hunger, over time the AWCs began to be recast into the role of comprehensive early childhood care and began to encompass the health needs of the women and adolescent girls within their brief. Naturally, with the diversification of Anganwadi’s portfolio, the workers in the system were expected to become trained thereby versatile and efficient. In some parts, the AWC workers are the ones solely responsible, even accountable, for the micro-management of the immunization, pre-natal and post-natal care systems, etc. With their role gaining import over time, it would have been prudent to address their working conditions and remuneration, however, that did not happen and now as the NEP is being unveiled and the workload of the AWC workers is further increasing, they are becoming increasingly vocal about their conditions.
The role of the AWCs is not limited to rural India, they are also the only functional daycare centers for the low-income urban districts and urban slums. This calls for a progressive and root and branch reform in the way they are structured and compensated for their services. The systemic reforms must look into the up-skilling of the workers, infrastructure development, and technology integration. If done well, the AWCs will become a dependable institution and we will witness the improvement of learning and nutritional outcomes.
The pandemic has acutely impacted the economy and it will surely have chronic effects, to offset them public welfare systems must be upgraded. In India, the Integrated Child Development Services constitute an important arm of public welfare mechanism. ICDS is instituted to cater to a large section of the populace and address their needs of nutrition, health, and early childhood education. the ICDS ambit covers not just the needs of the children but also addresses the requirements of mothers as their wellbeing is inextricably connected to the development of children. Additionally, the ICDS also focuses on the health and wellbeing of adolescent girls under certain schemes.
The ICDS has to be multifaceted in its approach and its deliveries need to be broad-based. One major instrumentality of the ICDS includes the Anganwadi Centers. There are frequently reported gaps in the utilization patterns of services and the Anagnwadi centers have to be revamped on every front to fill these gaps.
The data sourced from the government agencies reflect that there are about 13.77 lakhs AWCs in India. Over time, the AWCs have expanded their outreach, yet if they have to get closer to their conceptualized aim of being an anchor to community development, they have to be reinvented.
The lack of basic facilities like drinking water handicaps the AWCs as they attempt to expand their base and make their deliveries efficacious. It is estimated that 25 percent of the functioning AWCs do not have adequate drinking water facilities. In 2015, the NITI Aayog pressed for improvement of sanitation, power supply and basic medicine at the AWCs, and also adequate trained staff at the AWCS.
ICDS delivery hits a roadblock when the registered beneficiaries consistently find the AWC facilities inadequate and resort to paid services provided by private players. The privately run centers are not a common feature of the rural early childhood care infrastructure, but they are increasingly playing an important part in providing care for the mothers who could afford their services. As far as the children are concerned, they exit the ICDS rolls, for all intents and purposes, once they get admitted to the private schools offering nursery and kindergarten classes. The quality of meals of the AWCs is reported to be not good enough to act as an inducement for the children to keep attending them.
AWCs have to present themselves as a dependable institution for the early childhood development programmes, and clearly, the cultivation of such an image of AWCs in the minds of the rural parents is far from being accomplished. The reason for the gap between the ideal and the reality is the absence of basic facilities like creches and learning and play facilities at the Anganwadis. Without the basic facilities, the parents do not see the purpose of depending on their local AWCs and thus the pedagogical engagement with the toddlers remains unachievable to a large degree.
The success of the AWCs and fulfillment of the objectives of the ICDS, in general, is dependent on the efficacy of the human resource attached to the institutions. Anaganwadi workers and ANMs are household terminologies but they are far from being synonymous with the dependability as the career prospects of the people in these positions remain bleak and at best they are good only for subsistence. These frontline workers often work in less than ideal working conditions and the governments need to consider making upgrading time-bound. There are states within India that have done better than others in this regard, notable among these are Kerala, Tamilnadu, and Telangana. There are certain schemes that are driven by the center, like POSHAN abhiyaan that have lead the way in the capacity-building of the workers of ICDS.
The augmentation of the ICDS programme ought to rely on technology a lot more than it does now. For technology to succeed in revamping the ICDS, it must be leveraged to gather the data related to the delivery and distribution and the data thus generated must inform the planning and implementation of the programme. Southern Indian states that have performed better in the service delivery of ICDS have provided the frontline workers with smartphones besides geotagging the AWCs. These steps are reported to be effective in improving the service delivery performances and models of the ICDS. Notably, the state of Gujarat has digitized the supply chain of take-home rations and in this instance, the real-time data being generated is being used to eliminate the possibility of stockouts at the AWCS.
The center has proposed the Saksham Anganwadi scheme to improve the AWCs across states, the state governments have to work in tandem for the programme to be a success. Across India, 2.5 lakhs anaganwadis are slated to be revamped under this scheme.
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Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.