A Vision to Universalize Early Childhood Care & Education in India: Public-Private Partnerships
By Utsav Kheria and Kaustubh Jain
Kheria is the Co-founder at Rocket Learning, an edtech non-profit universalizing ECE in India, and Jain works in the Research team.
On May 10, 2023, Hon’ble Union Minister for Women and Child Development and Minority Affairs, Smt. Smriti Zubin Irani launched “Poshan bhi Padhai bhi,” an Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) program, aimed at ensuring holistic development of children under the age of 6. This program is part of a broader push of the government under Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 to universalize ECCE in India, reimagining Anganwadi centers as “vibrant centers of learning.”
This national push for ECCE has the potential to be life-changing for millions of children, given that 90% brain development is achieved by the age of 5. Some of the most important aspects of human capital in adults, including workforce productivity, good health, critical thinking, and collaboration are all dependent on the initial brain development that happens in the ages of 0 to 6.
Between the financial years 2021-22 and 2025-26, the Indian Government has approved the upgradation of 2 lakh Anganwadis to “Saksham Anganwadis,” at 40k per year. This would consist of improvements in Anganwadi infrastructure, technological improvements in the form of audio-visual aids, and the creation of a more catered environment for learning. Under the National Action Plan for Toys, the government has committed to making toys both financially and culturally accessible – emphasizing the use of indigenous and DIY toys that can be easily made at home by parents.
This focus on toy-based learning is particularly important, encouraging strategic thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. To maximize the benefits of these changes, the government will also carry out training of 13.9 lakh Anganwadi workers through the Poshan bhi Padhai bhi program.
India is in a unique position to universalize ECCE, which can be made possible through the extensive system of Anganwadi workers who are hard-working and trusted community members. Such policy shifts lay the vision for change but implement ability and scalability of these policies are equally, perhaps more, important.
ECCE, as a research field, is still relatively new, especially in the Indian context. Thus, testing hypotheses about which policies are most effective and understanding how local contexts shape the effectiveness of policies is key. NEP and the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) has defined multiple skill development domains including motor, cognitive, socio-emotional-ethical, literacy and numeracy. What will be additionally critical is building concrete data to measure development for children aged under 6 across these wide domains. In order to universalize ECCE, therefore, a consistent push towards more policy-oriented research ought to be established.
In India, the focus on schooling and the effectiveness of interventions varies from state to state. For example, the Illam Thedi Kalvi program, an after-school program for COVID learning loss recovery, in Tamil Nadu, accounted alone for 28 percent of the population catch up in Tamil and 20.7 percent of the catch up in Math after schooling disruptions due to COVID. Most other states have not been able to implement programs of such scale and effectiveness, regardless of their incentives. This is primarily because of different priorities and limited capacity – different states focus on different areas, and they only have a limited pool of resources to invest at any given point.
This is precisely why a nation-wide effort through Mission Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 to universalise ECCE is immensely important because it brings different state governments together to achieve a common goal. The call to universalise ECCE and the initial steps taken to achieve this goal are necessary, but given such constraints on funding and execution of policies, delivery of ECCE ought to be conducted in a public-private partnership for this goal to actualise.
Civil society partners and NGOs can act as pillars of support to governments, running RCTs to test various hypotheses about ECCE and provide feedback to governments, thus creating evidence-based policy. Furthermore, they can play a key role in innovation, designing creative solutions to increase reach. For example, Rocket Learning leveraged the power of Whatsapp to connect Anganwadi workers and parents in rural India, forming a vibrant learning community of over 1,00,000+ digital classrooms.
Crucially, such organizations have more specific focus areas – while each state has numerous policy areas to focus on, civil society partners can focus their attention on a specific problem, diverting all their resources on it and providing technical expertise to the government. Finally, their advocacy helps complement awareness campaigns run by governments. For instance, civil society partners highlighting and strengthening Jan Andolan and Jan Bhagidaari campaigns would help scale impact. We have seen positive results from public-private partnerships in awareness raising before, most effectively in the eradication of Polio in India by tackling vaccine hesitancy in large parts of the country.
It is clear that ECCE is a considerably big focus of the government, but regardless of government incentives, universalizing ECCE requires more than the efforts and services of the center. Estimates suggest that it would require 1.5-2.2 percent of the GDP just to provide universal early childhood education to children aged between 3 and 6, with the figure likely to be higher if considering all children under the age of 6. In public-private partnerships with civil society organizations, lies the solution to challenges both funding and execution of government policies, and it’s been staring at us in our faces all this while.