People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 04, 2008
Mr Finance Minister, Lend Your Ear
To The Children, Please!
For a country boasting of an 8 – 9 per cent growth in its GDP, for a country gloating over its sensex shooting up to unprecedented heights, India looses its sheen and cuts a sorry figure when it comes to its children – its future human resources. Here are a few key indicators, which go to show its human development record -
25 lakhs children die in India every year, accounting for 20 per cent of child deaths in the world. 58 out of every 1,000 children born in this country die before reaching their first birth day. According to a report of WHO, 55 per cent of infant mortality is contributed by malnutrition directly or indirectly
India accounts for 35 per cent of the developing world’s low birth weight babies; every second Indian child is underweight.
One of every three malnourished children in the world lives in India; As children grow up, poor nutrition and ill health affects their learning abilities and preparedness for schooling
Under nutrition continues to be a major public health problem in India, the most vulnerable groups being women of reproductive age group and young children
These startling revelations are made by the Working Group on Children for the Eleventh Five Year Plan.
Not only this, by the time they open their eyes on this earth, tens of thousands of children in our country find themselves motherless. Around 1,36,000 mothers, the largest number in the world, die in India every year while giving birth or due to the inability to get professional assistance to deal with their abortions. The maternal mortality ratio at 301 per 1 lakh of live births is among the highest in the world, higher than our neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
These are the types of indicators that place India at the 128th position in the Human Development Index and 94th in the Global Hunger Index. But the government, which acts within no time to restore the confidence of the investors in the share market (by the way, only a miniscule minority of less than 5 per cent of the people in the country invest in shares), does not feel that these indicators, which involve more than half of its people, are serious enough to warrant any urgent corrective measures.
This apathetic attitude is reflected in the meagre allotments made to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme over the years. ICDS was started more than 32 years back in 1975, in pursuance to the adoption of the National Policy for Children in 1974. This Policy recognised children as the ‘nation’s supremely important asset’ and called upon the state ‘to provide adequate services to children, both before and after birth and through the period of growth, to ensure their full physical, mental and social development’ and to cover ‘all children in the country’ ‘within a reasonable time’. Considering the high infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate etc, the government of the day was constrained to admit that these needed to be addressed with due urgency as they impact future human development.
Taking into consideration the fact that low birth weight, child malnutrition and mortality are linked to maternal malnutrition, ante natal and post natal care etc, the ICDS has been designed to provide a set of services like supplementary nutrition, pre school education, health and nutrition education, health check ups, immunisation and referral services.
Several studies, including those sponsored by the Planning Commission, National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development etc, have established the positive impact of ICDS in bringing down severe and moderate malnutrition among children, improving immunisation coverage, and school enrolment. This has led to the decision to expand ICDS, but even after more than three decades, ICDS covers less than one third of the children in the eligible age group in the country. Reflecting the urge for having anganwadi centres, the National Common Minimum Programme of the UPA government has committed to ‘universalise the ICDS scheme to provide a functional anganwadi in every settlement and ensure full coverage for all children’.
If effectively implemented ICDS would also have helped in India’s progress towards achieving Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, which include, among others, reducing by half the prevalence of underweight children, reducing by two thirds the mortality rate of children under five; and reducing by three quarters maternal mortality ratio. These targets set in 2000 were aimed to be achieved by 2015. We are now through 2008 but the distance covered has been too little to have any illusions that they can be achieved by 2015.
But, the concern for child development shown in words has not been matched by the allocation of resources by the government. Successive budgets have completely neglected child development and the allocations for ICDS have been just an eye wash. According to the Working Group on Child Development for the Eleventh Five Year Plan, on an average, between 2000- 01 and 2004 – 05, only 2.38 per cent of the total union budget was spent on children (through child specific programmes). Of this, only 0.43 per cent was spent on child development.
By the end of 2007, more than half way of the UPA rule, only 6 crore children or less than 40 per cent of all eligible children, were being provided supplementary nutrition in the anganwadi centres. This was an increase of only 54 lakhs children over those covered by the end of 2006. At this rate universalisation cannot be achieved before the next two decades. Yet, only Rs 4,761 crores or around 0.0095 per cent of the total of more than 5 lakhs crore budget, have been allotted for ICDS last year.
Another important aspect of the negligence of the government towards ICDS is the total apathy towards the conditions of the anganwadi workers and helpers, the key functionaries in its successful implementation at the ground level. The major flaw in the programme itself is that it envisages them as ‘social workers’ working on a voluntary basis while listing out their duties and job responsibilities and prescribing their working hours. Over time, a large number of responsibilities and jobs, often unrelated to ICDS, are thrust over them by the state governments and different departments. But the remuneration that is paid to them in the name of ‘honorarium’ is very meagre. Though they are supposed to work for only four and half hours a day, they are forced to put in 6- 7 hours, making it impossible for them to even think of any other means of supplementing their income. The government has announced the minimum wage of Rs 66 (since increased to Rs 80) - for unskilled workers under the NREGA. But the anganwadi workers who are given training and perform skilled work are paid less than Rs 35 per day while the helpers who do unskilled work are paid less than Rs 17. Not a single paisa has been increased in their remuneration during the last six years, even when the prices of all the essential commodities have increased several times.
It only goes to prove the anti worker attitude of the ruling classes, which is being expressed more openly in the era of neo liberal reforms that neither the NCMP of the UPA, nor the National Advisory Council nor the Planning Commission makes any mention of improving the conditions of the anganwadi workers and helpers and providing them some social security. Thousands of anganwadi workers and helpers who have been working for more than two decades are being forcibly removed from service when they reach 58 – 60 years without any compensation.
In view of the important contribution of ICDS and its role in ensuring the Right to Food, Health and Education of the country’s children, the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers has been raising the demand of universalising the ICDS and making it a permanent service along with the demand to improve the conditions of the anganwadi workers and helpers. It has demanded immediate enhancement of their remuneration to Rs 3,000 per month for workers and Rs 2,000 for the helpers, ex gratia of Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50,000 for the workers and helpers being ‘retired’ from service, and social security benefits including pension pending regularisation of the services of anganwadi workers and helpers as Grade III and Grade IV employees.
It has organised several big campaigns and struggles on these demands in the last four years. However, the response of the UPA government, including the minister for Women and Child Development and the prime minister, has only confined to assurances. The Federation has planned to intensify its struggles further, involving the common people and the beneficiaries. It is collecting crores of signatures of the common people including the beneficiaries on a memorandum to the prime minister to be submitted to him in February. Over four crores of signatures have already been collected. It is organising a march in Delhi on February 18, 2008. All the activists will participate wearing a uniform.
The struggle to universalise ICDS and make it a permanent service is a part of the struggle to improve the conditions of the children and women in the country; it is a part of the struggle to ensure the Right to Food, Health and Education for our children. It needs the active support of all the sections of the society who stand for the Rights of Children. The CITU has demanded the finance minister, during the pre budget discussions, to allot Rs 12,000 crores to ICDS, including Rs 2,500 crores specifically earmarked for improving the conditions of the anganwadi workers and helpers and providing them social security benefits.This is just Rs 700 per child per year. Can a country which cannot spare this small amount for its children, ever dream of having a bright shining future?
Will the finance minister, for a change, lend his ear to the country’s children, please!