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Tiny Steps in the Right Direction

 

By Meenal Tula

Sarita, a dedicated anganwadi worker in Shillong Urban, has a gentle and charming way with the young children who listen to her keenly as she conducts the preschool activities of the day, which include story-telling, singing songs, playing games, drawing and painting, and writing alphabets and numbers. She fluently and seemlessly switches from Khasi, Garo, Nepali, Hindi and Bengali as required given the diversity of the group. She personally attends to their every need and makes learning fun. The parents from the community send their children to preschool everyday. They know how hard she works, so they support her in all her inititatives. They even make monetary contributions towards the rent of the building that the anganwadi functions from, given the inadequate provisions from the administration. Sarita is but one of the many foot-soldiers of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme in Meghalaya, who are working to make sure that no child is left out, unattended, under-nourished, or not given the same chances from the very beginning.

While the Constitution of India recognises the right to free and compulsory primary education, no such provisions for pre-primary education exist. This can lead to radical disparities in the preparedness of children for schooling, especially in states like Meghalaya, where the reach of developmental activities and demography is highly variegated. It stands to reason that those who have greater access to education facilities at an early age have a distinct advantage; those who miss out on preschool, miss out in the long run.

Non-formal preschool education, is a primary component of the ICDS scheme, which is the chief Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme in India. According to UNICEF India, it covers around 38 million children through a network of almost 1.4 million anganwadi centres. In other words, ICDS looks after as many children as there are people in Poland. It focuses on the holistic development of children by providing a learning environment for the social, economic, cognitive, motor, and physical development of the child, giving a little help up on to the first rung of the ladder.

According to the impact assessment study by NESRC, Guwahati and HAQ, Delhi, which was released recently, broadly speaking, in more urbanised areas where multiple avenues of preschool education are available, the preschools run by anganwadis have restricted reach and popularity. But in remote/rural regions, they are greaty appreciated by the community. The number of children attending preschools is on the lower side in Shillong Urban Block, according to the data available at the Department of Social Welfare (DSW), Meghalaya. Mawphlang, on the other hand, has had consistently high enrolment. In East Garo Hills, specifically in Samanda and Songsak blocks, the numbers have been going up since 2012. The provision of preschool in these areas has been a relief to many parents given the increasingly high costs of private schools. Notably, the preschools are highly regarded in Mawphlang due to the high level of investment by the community itself in a system they see as working for their benefit.

Under ICDS, all anganwadis are supposed to have functional preschools. But the ground reality is diffferent. Many centres in Shillong Urban do not have preschools. The problem of ‘double enrolment’when a child is enrolled in the preschool at the anganwadi but actually attends a formal school –  is also an emerging issue. The minimum qualitification of an anganwadi worker is that she needs to be a matriculate. The study found that this is not always the case. It is imperative that the state administration pay more attention to these appointments. Furthermore, the burden for ensuring that the worker is trained to handle the responsibilities of the preschool lies with the state as well, and is sadly often neglected.

Under increased pressure generated because of inadvertent competition with privatised institutions, how do anganwadi preschools measure up? A lady supervisor at Shillong Urban noted that the anganwadi workers were not professional teachers and it is not correct to expect top quality education in the centres. In Songsak block, one of the village-committee members of an anganwadi centre feared that the worker was not qualified enough to teach and could be misinforming the students. He was not sure whether he should send his children to anganwadi-run preschool in the area. Similar concerns are common in other areas as well. Some beneficiary mothers alleged that the worker herself feels incapable of taking classes and instead just hands out toys to the children to keep them busy. Such inconsistencies are not good enough, and serve to colour the whole scheme in a dark light, casting a shadow over the good work of so many others.

Infrastructural problems like the non-availability of buildings, inadequate provision for open areas for the children to play, further hinders the functioning of preschools. Absence of proper amenities for clean drinking water and toilet facilities are not rare either. An anganwadi centre in Mawphlang, for instance, is so badly off that the worker conducts the preschool at her house, where there are understandable space restrictions and other related concerns.

But there is ample hope. A member of the village-level committee in Mawmaram (Mawphlang block) told us that the anganwadi preschool was improving with every passing year. The people of the village have even taken the initiative and made an extension to the centre so that more students could be enrolled. This is an admirable example of the community working with the scheme for its own benefit: of a people helping ICDS to help their children. The new building is now functional and has two rooms. Different activities can now be organised for the children at the same time. Informal convergences between Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan (SSA) and anganwadi preschool programmes, seen in Samanda, has been quite beneficial for all stakeholders.

The provisions made within the guidelines of ICDS have the potential to make, and have been making, prominent tranformations in the lives of many communities. But poor implementation, inadequate infrastructural and budgetary provisions, and a shortage of personnnel for supervision and monitoring plague the scheme at different levels in the state, meaning that the scheme is not able to serve each child as well as it out to. Customised assessments and ad hoc problem solving would also help in this matter.

According to one official from the Department of Social Welfare and some Child Development Project Officers (CDPOs), there is need to explore the availability of permanent and better infrastructure for preschools. He also expressed optimism with regard to the implementation of strengthened ECCE programmes and the proposed refurbishing of preschools in Meghalaya, the training for which is currently underway. The programmes are expected to be implemented in early 2017. Results like an increase in the number of activities being organised at preschools and attendance of students after the centres have been revamped by the ECCE scheme, which have been observed in many anganwadis in Uttar Pradesh.

In short, a little more training for those who first train our children, and a little more help from the community and state in building up the structure of the anganwadi buildings themselves would go a long way in helping a long list of beneficiaries. A recalibration of the status quo, and focused development on our priortities vis-à-vis our state’s children and the proper implementation of ICDS guidelines through better planning is the way to ensure a brighter tomorrow for all.

Meenal Tula is Senior Research Associate at North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC), Guwahati. She can be reached at [email protected]

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