Quality human resources are central to a country’s progress and our children are that resource. Quality education and creating an ecosystem for them to acquire skills is fundamental to our republic’s future. But it is only a healthy child, not stunted but well nourished, who can seize the opportunities to reap the benefits of quality education and acquire skills for personal and societal advancement. Absent this, our republic, though imbued with a sense of hope, will falter in realising her aspirations. All efforts at nation-building will fall short unless future generations are physically and mentally equipped to show their worth in a globally competitive environment.
Article 39(f) of our Constitution enjoins the state to ensure that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner, in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the 72 years of our republic we have miserably failed on that front. This has jeopardised our nation’s onward march. 363 million children in our country are between 0-14 years of age (World Bank, 2019). India ranks 113th of the 176 countries on an index that evaluates countries on the well-being of children.
This evaluation is done on the basis of indicators like child mortality, malnutrition, stunted growth and lack of education, amongst others (Save the Children-NGO Report, 2019). As of 2018, 38.4% of our children under five were stunted (China-6%); 20% between 8-16 were out of school (China-7.6%) and 11.7% were engaged in child labour, the highest in terms of numbers globally (Global Childhood Report, 2019). Of the 159 million children aged below six, 21% are under-nourished, 36% are underweight and 38% do not receive full immunisation (State of Young Child in India Report, September 2020).
Clearly, we have failed our children. How then can India aspire to be a global leader? How can it be the change agent with more than one third of our children abnormally skinny and abnormally short? How do we compete in the future economy when 40% of our workforce has faced a stunted childhood?
Nutritional levels amongst children in India have worsened over the last five years. While we made substantial progress in lowering the share of stunted children by nearly 10% between 2005-06 and 2015-16, the proportion of child stunting, child wasting, underweight children and infant mortality has either been stagnant or worsened compared to 2015-16 (NFHS 2019-20).
Covid-19 is bound to adversely impact them. The reasons for this include fall in personal incomes, food availability and healthcare provisioning. Amongst South Asian countries, child wasting is highest in India, followed by the second highest number of stunted children (World Bank, 2019). Of 107 countries, India ranks 94th in the Global Hunger Index (2020), while in terms of quality and access to healthcare it is 145th among 195 countries (Lancet). Given these facts, our Budgets on healthcare have been modest, with allocations not enough to meet our national health policy’s commitment to raise healthcare expenditure to 2.5% of GDP. Our current healthcare expenditure is around 1.15% of GDP, which is much less than the world average of 6%.
In this process, we have also built an unjust society where some exploit the full potential of opportunities while others neither have the capacity nor the wherewithal to realise their potential. 250 million of our children enrolled in 1.5 million schools represent the largest school education system anywhere in the world. Yet as children move up the ladder from primary to upper primary, secondary and senior secondary levels, the drop-out rate is alarming. This results in fewer children moving up to university level. States like Assam, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh have witnessed a significant rise in the number of students discontinuing school in class 9-10.
Even in Delhi, the dropout rate has increased significantly from 10% in 2016-17 to 17.5% in 2017-18. The largest drop-out rate at primary and higher secondary level is among children belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and Muslim Minorities along with differently-abled students, with an alarming decline in female students within each of these groups. Declining numbers of these groups in higher education is of even greater concern. The other worrisome aspect is that around 50% of our children lack basic reading and numeracy skills even after five years of formal schooling.
Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018, which analysed levels of literacy among students, found that students of Class 5 were unable to comprehend texts prescribed for Class 2 (ASER Report, 2018). Their performance in mathematics was equally dismal. The lack of reading skills and the inability to deal with simple arithmetic problems is direct evidence of the lack of quality education. This is attributable to levels of poverty, accessibility, absence and paucity of teachers, poor teaching quality and a range of other factors.
As we wax eloquent about the digital economy, we should also take a serious look at the extent of access to digital infrastructure both in government and private schools. Only 35% of government schools had access to functional computers (Uniform District Information System for Education). The overall percentage of schools with functional computers was down to 37% in 2016-17 from 42% in 2012-13. While schools may have been established, the government perhaps was not able to equip them with digital facilities.
The National Sample Survey Report (2017-18) suggests that only 24% of Indian households have internet facilities. Given the fact that 66% of our population lives in villages, just 15% of rural households have access to internet services while for urban households, the proportion is 42%. This clearly reflects the urban-rural divide. If 37% of households in India have one dwelling room, it may not be possible for children to attend digital classes undisturbed.
This is the state of children, who are the foundation of our republic. While we seek a permanent seat in the Security Council, we have miserably failed to secure seats for our children in quality schools and provide essential healthcare and nutrition to empower our republic. Though politics moves at a galloping pace to secure power for the riders, a lot of our children are left behind insecure and beleaguered. Had we invested in them, India would instead have galloped ahead.
KApil Sibal (Tweets @KapilSibal)
Senior lawyer, Congress leader and member of Rajya Sabha