Investing thoroughly in early childhood is investing in the nation’s development

by Dharitri Patnaik, India Representative, Bernard van Leer Foundation

Young children are rarely heard. This is mostly because of the attitude we have towards children. Children are not vote banks. They do not raise their voices against injustice nor do they have unions. In order to thrive, the youngest citizens depend on the rest of us, adults to pay attention and we as a society hardly pay them the attention they deserve.

In the early years of a child’s life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second.  These connections build brain architecture – the foundation upon which all later learning, behaviour and health depend.  These neural connections shape the contours of nearly a billion young children’s futures every year.  Collectively, they represent our best opportunity to live together in a prosperous and peaceful society. So, while a happy childhood can bring the best in a person at the stage of adulthood, a stressed one can make the person vulnerable by increasing risk of stress related problems including diseases.

There are close linkages between the living conditions and wellbeing of children. Housing, water, sanitation, traffic, transportation, soil, air, quality of preschools, social network and parenting have a bearing on the child’s physical, social and emotional development. While it has been established that physical environment, including home and the neighbourhoods are one of the most important determinants of health, yet the issue of child mortality and morbidity due to living conditions are hardly on the agenda of the governments or agencies working with children.

7.8 million children live in slums in India where basic services and quality of housing is completely inadequate. But slums are not the only problem.  So why do we ignore living conditions? Why do we not include the interests of children in the design and planning process? One reason is that unlike health or education, there is no established sector that covers living conditions.  It is a mixture of planners, construction companies, urban development and housing and poverty alleviation ministries, etc. who mostly operate independent of each other.  The second, more critical issue is the lack of awareness about the issues related to physical environments and how they impact children.

Sights of children playing in extremely hazardous situations, on garbage has become common in almost all the slums in India. It is not just children living in urban poverty but also children from other socio-economic backgrounds who lack access to safe play spaces. Lack of the basic amenities such as well-ventilated houses, safe water, drainage, play space etc can lead to stress and violence. Most often we see this as violence against women and children. Tensions and fights for water in slums, lack of street lights or even lighting at home lead to further harassment and abuse of children. Cramped lanes, too tight to meet the space needs of people living in tiny shacks, shared water taps and toilets, a lack of waste collection, high noise levels, violation of perceived boundaries, can all lead to hostility and endanger the safety of children.  (Bartlett, 2013).

India’s flagship programmes such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) or Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) have not been successful in addressing the housing or the living conditions of the urban poor nor are they “child friendly”. The barriers to children’s development are closely associated with these amenities and environment which we often term as ‘basic’ and also most often ignore them. While the buzz on ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘ Swaach Bharat Abhiyaan’ is getting louder, I urge upon our policymakers, urban planners, child rights activists, parents, communities and children themselves to ensure that we have the ‘basics’ in place and that these basics (housing that can accommodate a family of five, water and sanitation, well managed waste management system, electricity, play spaces etc) has to be child friendly and developed in consultation with children.

A strong foundation in early childhood lays the groundwork for responsible citizenship, economic prosperity, healthy communities, and successful parenting of the next generation. A weak foundation can seriously undermine the social and economic vitality of the nation.” Prof. Jack P. Shonkoff, Harvard University.

Bernard van Leer is an international private philanthropy focussed on early childhood development among disadvantaged children.

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