Time to put children first on growth agenda
By Karin Hulshof
The development of the 12th Plan affords a remarkable opportunity to place equity for India’s children firmly in the government’s development agenda over the next five years. Equity can be understood to have three underlying principles: one, the principle of justice —recognizing that those who are most disadvantaged are so because of injustices in the social or economic or political order; second, that these are remediable, and can be addressed through appropriate corrective interventions and third, that this requires the redistribution of resources and services, to address the most disadvantaged.
I would like to add that equity must be inclusive and transformative — any strategy to reduce disparities must also contribute towards a more tolerant, less hierarchical and divisive society, in the long term.
A child’s development is a sequence of events for which there are no ‘second chances.’ Once missed, the window of opportunity closes forever. We must ensure that each and every child gets the best start in life so that they will survive and thrive and meet their fullest potential as possible. Persistent disparities along the lines of caste, tribe, geography and gender perpetuate inequality. Poverty hits children hardest, because it causes life-long and irreparable damage to their minds and bodies.
India’s growth patterns over the past five years show resilience to crisis, through prudent financial management, taking advantage of a huge domestic economy and the unleashing of enterprise and opportunity — and the promise of continued high growth in the coming years. India must harness the potential of ‘its demographic dividend.’ This time of unprecedented prosperity provides a very positive framework within which to talk about equity. Social gains must keep pace with economic ones.
In 15 years, India’s children will still number approximately 400 million —equal to the population of most large countries. Of these, about 100 million belong to the poorest families. If social progress does not keep pace with economic growth, India’s medium- to long-term prospects of growth with stability will not take root.
India is meeting targets for access to improved drinking water and primary education. But in the areas of poverty reduction, nutrition, infant and child mortality, maternal mortality and sanitation, the country still falls short of national and global targets. For example, an estimated 55 million, or 43% of India’s children under five years are underweight. This figure increases to 55% for children from scheduled tribe families and 57% for children from the poorest wealth quintile.
Undernutrition happens very early in life. An estimated one-third of children are already undernourished at birth because of nutrition deprivation during pregnancy. Sub-optimal feeding, care and hygiene practices in the first two years of life compound the situation. Global experience indicates a set of evidence-based interventions from conception to age two, delivered at scale with emphasis on the poorest and most excluded can prevent and treat undernutrition.
To meet these challenges in the 12th Plan, we must be clear what equity means in terms of policies and interventions. There is a need to move the discourse away from seeing equity only in terms of targeting resources at specific social groups. As we move forward, we need to take stock of the situation in India today.
There are over 150 centrally-sponsored schemes that address different aspects of vulnerability and deprivation. Of these, 12 national flagship schemes absorb 93% of the funds. India’s policy makers must have the courage to reconfigure the public spend to decongest the ‘clogged’ pipes of public service delivery. Openness to regular monitoring and evaluation is the hallmark of a courageous planner and manager. Where this openness exists, equity issues can be identified and addressed in a timely and responsive way.
Significant silence still surrounds reproductive health education, early marriage and early pregnancy. For example, maternity benefits are denied to mothers below the age of 18 despite the reality of early marriage and maternity. Forty-three per cent of women in India between the ages of 20-24 were married before the age of 18. Schemes must address this reality. By denying these young women and their children access to much needed services, we perpetuate the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
This is meant to be the Asian century. With the advent of the 12th Plan, India is standing proudly at the forefront, not of history, but of the future. Now is the time to be daring to combine the existing technical knowledge with the political will to change the lives of hundreds of millions of children in India. There can be no greater investment than that of investing in children.
The writer is the UNICEF India representative.
The article first appeared on Times of India