Sharp focus on child rights
Amarjeet Sinha

Focus on children under six (FOCUS) Abridged Report 2006
published by Citizen’s Initiative for the Rights of Children Under Six (CIRCUS).

A faster rate of economic growth has not translated into effective interventions for children
A faster rate of economic growth has not translated into effective interventions for children.

The FOCUS Report is unique in many ways. First, unlike most Indian academic publications, it is an action-oriented report exhorting the reader to act for the well-being and rights of Indian children under the age of six years. Secondly, it was not released in a sanitised and insulated auditorium where entry is by invitation; instead, it was released in the course of a public hearing on child rights by Amartya Sen. Thirdly, it is a rare example of team effort - there are many contributors whose inputs have been woven into a very effective call to action. It is indeed a very well-coordinated CIRCUS, the acronym for the group that has published it. Fourthly, it is based on field observations in six states, three well performing (Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh) and three not so well performing (Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan). Fifthly, it weaves the field observations within a very sound theoretical framework of the rights-based perspective, the national context, the evidence on children, and concrete recommendations for action. Unlike the writings of many of our Delhi-centric critics and advisers who have long given up going to the field, the reader really gets a feel for the ground reality. Being modestly priced (like the PROBE Report on Basic Education), it is within the reach of a larger segment of concerned citizens.

The FOCUS Report is spread over eight chapters. After establishing the theoretical underpinnings of child rights and democracy, the report takes a bird’s eye-view of the state of India’s children, as reflected in recent surveys. It then goes on to reflect on the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Programme in a rights perspective. The ground realities as emerging from the field study are shared with insights into the actual working of the Aanganwadi Centre in the six states surveyed as also a discussion on the key player, the Aanganwadi Worker and her working conditions. The insightful field presentation is followed by a detailed exposition of the Tamil Nadu system of effective ICDS and the enabling conditions that have made it possible.

For those overwhelmed by recent reports of India’s 9 per cent growth and emergence as a global player, the FOCUS Report provides the much-needed reality check. That faster rate of economic growth has not translated into effective interventions for children is perhaps known to many; what this report does is to present the starkness of the field reality interspersed with hope that it is possible to make a difference if we really want to. The presentation of the child morbidity data in the surveyed villages on page 67 shows that 50 per cent children, during two weeks preceding the survey, had either fever, diarrhoea, persistent cough, extreme weakness, skin rashes, or eye infections. The presentation exposes the shocking state of affairs. The field observations on well-functioning ICDS centres bring out the simplicity with which such action is possible everywhere.

The imaginative presentation of how Tamil Nadu is different (Page 104) is again an example of excellent use of data to convey key messages. The Table is an opportunity for other states to see the critical parameters (infrastructure, regularity, public health measures, training of AWWs, etc.) necessary for satisfactory performance. The simple write-up on a thriving Aanganwadi in Tamil Nadu in Box 7.4 is an inspiration for all other ICDS centres.

The report could perhaps have looked at institutions in some greater detail. The role of Panchayati Raj Institutions, the need for village/habitation level health, sanitation and nutrition committees, the relationship between PRIs and user groups, the diversity of village size and its implications, the challenge of getting hamlet-level leadership institutionalised, could have been given a little more attention. The ICDS programme needs to be ‘communitised’ with all the flexibility possible. It needs to provide institutional space to all those at the village level who have the motivation but not the authority. Crafting such institutions is a challenge in the more difficult states. For effective decentralisation, such crafting of institutions and their empowerment holds the key to change.

While the report has rightly made a case for a two-worker model and improvement in the compensation/entitlements of Aanganwadi Workers, it could have done some more work on developing a framework for public recruitments to ensure local residence, sustained capacity development opportunities, opportunities for upward mobility to AWWs as ANMs and nurses, community monitoring and accountability, etc. While the report has made a case for decentralised planning and implementation, its recommendations could have been more detailed in developing a framework for implementation in states like Bihar, UP, MP, etc. where the chances of unsatisfactory performance is most. The report rightly makes the case for more financial resources. As is clear, the additionality demanded is miniscule, given the size of India’s GDP and the percentage of public expenditure.

Overall, an excellent report that needs to be read by all those concerned with how India is doing. Here is an agenda that is urgent and immediate. If the report succeeds in drawing the attention of policy makers, planners and politicians to the harsh ground realities, it would have served its purpose. It is a strong call to action, a call to crafting a credible public system of guaranteeing rights of children. Our democracy can only get strengthened by heeding to such evidence-based advice.