Mumbai: Aarti’s employers are busy, “important-looking” people who often work from home in their smart Colaba apartment, near South Mumbai’s art galleries. They like things to be quiet and wouldn’t take too kindly to having a couple of kids running about the place, making noise, as children tend to do.

“I have to bring them to work with me on Sundays, when the crèche is closed,” Aarti Bhansore, 35, a domestic worker told IndiaSpend. “It definitely feels like an issue for my employers, so I’m glad a neighbour told me about the crèche in the neighbourhood.”

Walking over an hour in the heat each day from their home in Shiv Shakti Nagar, a slum in Cuffe Parade, located at the very tip of the city peninsula, Aarti drops her two children off at a crèche run by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Fort, before heading to work. There’s often no time for breakfast at home, but here the children are fed nourishing meals, taught basic math and reading, and are cared for until pick-up time, usually around 5 pm.

Like Aarti, 81% of India’s workforce is employed in the unorganised sector (90% of all female workers). They comprise farm labourers, construction workers, domestic helpers--anyone with a casual, non-contractual relationship with their employer.

Devoid of any legal protection or social security benefits, working mothers under informal employment are unable to demand or access day-care facilities their organised sector counterparts are entitled to under the Maternity Benefit Act, Factories Act and other laws.

The 2006 National Crèche Scheme, previously known as the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme, and its network of neighbourhood crèches were set up for parents like Aarti, unable to rely on family members or their employer’s help for childcare.

But a programme that could have helped increase the proportion of women in the workforce, while making working life easier for those already employed, is floundering because of delayed or non-existent payments from state governments.

In November 2017, as part of the overall government plan to increase the states’ share in welfare programmes as well as to provide them greater autonomy in the planning of these programmes, the Centre announced a change to the National Crèche Scheme’s funding structure.

Instead of the 90:10 ratio of contributions from the central and the state government, the Centre would now only contribute 60% of funds, meaning states would have to make up the 40% shortfall. NGOs (which tend to be the main crèche operators) are still expected to contribute an amount equal to 10% of the running costs, as before.

Since then, payments to crèches have been delayed and thousands of crèches across the country now fear for their future--and the lives of the women and children they help. This transfer of responsibility from the Centre to the state appears to have caused much of the current disruption, with many creches not receiving any grant money since.

“The scheme was working wonderfully actually and we managed to use the funds in quite a novel way, so we were happy,” Jyothi Patania, founder-director of the Chaitanya Mahila Mandal, an NGO that runs night-crèches for children of sex workers in Pune’s red light district, told IndiaSpend.

“Then, in early 2017, we received a letter saying the scheme had been transferred to the state and since then we haven’t received any funds,” Patania said. “We’re missing a full grant for the past year and a quarter.”

After speaking to several crèches around the country, IndiaSpend found many of them worrying for their future, struggling to plug funding gaps and puzzling over the lack of explanation for the delay in payments.

The central government does not have any intention of discontinuing the scheme, said Virendra Kumar, minister of state for women and child development, in response to a July 2018 question in Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), adding that the scheme is being implemented by various states and union territories as per the approved fund-sharing pattern.

To understand why grants have not been paid to several crèches, IndiaSpend made repeated requests for comment by phone and email to Anuradha Chagti, Joint Secretary in charge of the National Crèche Scheme at the Ministry of Women and Child Development, but received no response. We also contacted Indra Mallo, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Commissioner for Women and Child Development, Maharashtra but were told she will not respond as she is busy with election duty. This story will be updated if either Ministry responds.

In Maharashtra, an independent report in April 2017 found that many crèches across the state were not operational, and their payments were stopped from August 2017, according to a document shared with IndiaSpend by a government official. Crèches that had no on-site medical and PSE kits or visiting medical officers also had their stipends for these services terminated.

But this plugging of gaps and corruption in the programme does not explain why legitimate, well-functioning crèches such as those run by Chaitanya Mahila Mandal and YWCA haven’t received grants for over a year.

Childcare support could help get more women in the workforce

At just 27%, India currently has one of the lowest female labour force participation (FLFP) rates in the world, higher only than Saudi Arabia among the G20 countries--a forum of 19 governments and the European Union--and down from 35% in 1993. With a low proportion of women in the workforce, India is missing out on a potential 18% boost to its gross domestic product by 2025.

While illiterate women, along with college graduates, are one of the most in-work groups, they also experience some of the largest numbers of dropouts, according to this March 2017 World Bank report, which analysed government data over seven years to 2012.

The crèche scheme could have, in part, addressed this issue, by providing a lifeline to poor, working women, many of whom who drop out because there is no childcare.

"For those living in nuclear families, usually in urban areas, childcare is even more essential,” Pronab Sen, programme director of the International Growth Centre India Programme, a research organisation, told IndiaSpend. “It should be, and has to be, provided by the government.”

"Childcare reduces the time for which women need to be outside the workforce,” he added. “If women are outside of the workforce for an extended period of time, they may come into the workforce at a later age and this could reduce their employability.”

“Access to childcare and therefore the ability to work, is an empowerment issue above all for the poorest women in society,” said Sen.

But an estimated 8,143 crèches have closed between 2013-14 and 2016-17, and the number of women and children benefiting from the scheme cut by 39% (from 474, 775 to 290,925).

The Ministry of Women and Child development has also decreed that no new crèches are currently allowed to register under the scheme. IndiaSpend did not receive any response from the ministry regarding the reasons for the closure--some could have been closed because of financial irregularities in how the crèches were being run as was the case in Maharashtra for some crèches. The story will be updated if and when we receive a response.

The YWCA which Aarti’s children, Anush, 4, and Shauni, 3, attend, has not received its grant payments for 2017 or 2018, said Neeta Dabre, the assistant coordinator of the Women’s Development Unit.

“Our 2016 payment arrived one-and-a-half years late and is the last grant payment we received,” said Dabre. “Our reports are ready but no one has asked us for them and the procedure for next year hasn’t been started.”

“I don’t know what is happening, we haven’t heard from anyone.”

For some parents, crèches are safer than homes

Up to 87% of respondents--working across six states in occupations such as domestic work, agricultural labour, tea-plantations, brick-kilns, home based artisans and construction workers--said they found it difficult to work and take care of children due to time-pressures, work distractions, and that their children often remained unsafe and neglected, according to a 2011 report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

Struggling with poor infrastructure, a lack of basic amenities and no support to tackle daily chores, life for Aarti in her makeshift slum home can be tough. Placing the children in a crèche means she has more free time for household tasks, perhaps even a second job, and is assured the children are kept out of harm’s way.

For instance, water is available in Aarti’s slum only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the evening. She first collects water for the house and then picks the children up from the crèche.

“They’re my brother’s kids actually,” she added. “Their mother died, I don’t have a husband and their father is not much I’m trying to do my best for them.”

Several parents described their home environments as “bad” and “dangerous places,” citing the fact that their kids can be supervised all day at the crèche as a blessing.

“My son used to be very hyper [before he started coming here],” Ashu Raja Ambati, 23, a mother at the YWCA crèche, and another resident of Shiv Shakti Nagar, told IndiaSpend.

“I would worry about him getting into trouble if he played near our home, so I much prefer to bring him here,” she added. “Our locality is not a safe place.”

Instances of sexual abuse, accidents, exposure to drugs and even death were reported as common risks that parents feared when leaving their children unsupervised during work hours, according to a survey of 504 respondents conducted across five locations in Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa by Aangan, an NGO working on child protection, which provided its data to IndiaSpend.

“So many parents have tension,” said Sunetra Salunke, 52, a teacher at the YWCA crèche. “They worry what [the kids] are doing in the slums, but at least here they have some security, can be more carefree and manage their time better.”

“The children have space to breathe here too,” she said. “It’s light and airy and they get the chance to run around and play--the size of this room is sadly about the same as five of their single-room houses put together.”

Sunetra Salunke, 52, a teacher at the YWCA crèche in Fort, with a student. Government-supported crèches are a lifesaver for poor working parents who don’t have any help during working hours.

A popular scheme faltered with lack of funds, no communication from the government

Rs 48 crore reached state governments in 2017-18, down from Rs 125 crore in 2016-17, following the change in the crèche scheme’s funding structure.

“Early 2017 was a difficult period,” Nirmal Chandappa, Director, CORP India, told IndiaSpend. “We had to suddenly find private donors to cover 100% of our funding.” CORP India runs a network of 20 crèches, across many of Mumbai’s most impoverished areas, and is one of the largest crèche operators in the state.

"While we have been able to manage, these are just one- or two-year grants that we have secured and then we’ll have to find new donors,” he said. “It’s really worrying.”

Even in the past, it was common for the grant instalments to arrive late (sometimes several months late), but many crèches never worried about them failing to arrive at all.

The majority of the crèches we spoke to were full of praise for the scheme’s longevity and relative stability across many years, multiple governments, and their impact among some of the most disadvantaged in society.

“Some of our crèches have been running for over 30 years now--we even have some of the third generations of families attending,” Chandappa recounted. “But who knows what will happen now--the population is growing and there’s always more and more children to look after,” he said. “These people don’t have any other option.”

Chandappa and others in his position have tried to reach the ministry for answers, but so far have been met with silence. “We used to deal directly with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, but they’ve stopped responding to us,” he said. “Then they told us to deal directly with the state authorities and go to Mantralaya (Maharashtra government headquarters), but that hasn’t worked either.”

The Centre announced a grant increase from Rs 42,384 to Rs 1,37,470 per centre in 2016, a 224% raise that was warmly received by many as a sign that the scheme, and with it child development as a whole, was being prioritised by the government.

However, as Chandappa and many others would find, while their grant payments increased for a short while, they eventually became non-existent.

“After the government increased our grant we had many plans to improve our facilities--maybe buy a projector, or a computer and modernise the crèches,” Chandappa said. “But that’s all fallen through now. It’s also affecting our ability to make hiring decisions.”

Larger, well-established NGOs like CORP and the YWCA have been able to continue to provide services by tapping existing donor networks or leaning on alternative funding streams such as the YWCA’s women’s hostel business for temporary sources of capital. But smaller crèches, in rural and semi-urban areas, have been harder hit.

“Our grant has been in ‘pending’ status for one-and-a-half years,” said Bhavsar Dighe, 47, former crèche manager from Sangamner--a town of 65,000, located 230 km from Mumbai, between Nashik and Ahmednagar.

“In that time [the state social welfare board] just kept saying the payments are coming etc…and I always presumed they would,” he added. “But we couldn’t keep on paying the staff honorariums or afford the food expenses,” he said. “Actually the crèche is closed now.”

Dighe’s crèche was a convenient solution for ‘below poverty line’ families working in the local beedi factory, where no childcare facilities are available. Now the children go to the local anganwadi located a couple of streets away which is open only from 11:00 to 13:00, mainly to receive a meal of dal and rice.

“I don’t know what the government is playing at, they’re really making these kids suffer,” said Dighe. “I just urge them to start the payments as soon as possible.”

Closed crèches show unintended impact of financial decentralisation

“I believe decentralisation is generally a good thing,” Vandana Prasad, national convenor at the Public Health Resource Network (PHRN), told IndiaSpend, because decentralisation could create more transparent and accountable social welfare programmes. The state government would also have more flexibility to structure programmes to help its poor and marginalised.

Prasad has been an advocate for government childcare as a mechanism to advance child health and nutrition levels, for over 25 years and is currently developing a network of 150 crèches for the Government of Odisha, in collaboration with the Azim Premji Foundation.

The decentralisation she mentions was part of the recommendation of the 14th Finance Commission, which increased the share of Union taxes that would be shared with states from 32% to 42%.

As a result, budgets from 2016-17 onwards have placed greater accountability on states to allocate resources for social welfare programmes, like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)--the government’s flagship child development programme.

“The government should realise changes like these have real implications for women and children, their health and well-being,” Prasad said. “If the Centre shifts responsibility to states like this, they should ensure states have adequate funds to take it on and that they are actually implementing the programmes transferred to them and with quality.”

In some cases, decentralisation could send the wrong message to states.

“When the Centre pulls its hand away from supporting social welfare schemes like this, states get the message that this is a low priority, that we can also get away with not allocating so much here,” Sumitra Mishra, executive director at Mobile Creches, a Delhi-headquartered NGO, told IndiaSpend.

“They also think why should we allocate to a central scheme? If we want to allocate to a programme like this, then it will be to a scheme that our government has launched,” Mishra added. “These are the dynamics under which governance then collapses.”

For close to 50 years, Mobile Creches has been running temporary childcare centres at building sites, moving the crèche as the sites change. Currently, three out of their 70 crèches nationwide are run under the National Crèche Scheme, for which they have not received their 2018 payment.

The government has previously told Mishra that there is low demand for crèches, which could impact its funding adversely. “We are constantly telling our network partners to apply for the National Crèche Scheme and show there is interest from both NGOs, and women and children beneficiaries, for this programme,” Mishra said.

But in some states the situation is dire. “The National Crèche Scheme is almost non-functional in Uttar Pradesh and the state government doesn’t seem to be concerned about the issue,” Ramayan Yadav, treasurer at the Vigyan Foundation, a Lucknow-based NGO and member of the Forum for Crèches and Child Care Services (FORCES) network, told IndiaSpend. This is despite the fact that “currently around 20 lakh children in the state are malnourished”, he added.

India spends little on child development

India currently ranks 130 out of 180 countries on the Child Development Index 2018, facing high levels of inequality across states. While some states such as Kerala and Goa have infant mortality rates and education enrolment ratios similar to developed nations, others trail far behind, matching countries affected by war and natural disasters, IndiaSpend reported in July 2018.

The early years of a child’s life are a critical period for cognitive, emotional and physical growth with environment playing a large role in determining healthy outcomes. Half a person’s intelligence potential is developed by age four, and inadequate nutrition, brain stimulation and stress can permanently affect brain functioning and lead to learning disorders.

For time-poor and cash-strapped working parents without any support, crèches could help provide a much needed safety net.

Still, just 0.7% of survey respondents in Rajasthan reported their workplace had crèche facilities, dropping to 0% in Uttar Pradesh, according to this 2009 report on workers employed under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which ensures at least 100 days of paid work a year to rural households conducting unskilled manual work.

This is despite the fact that under MGNREGA, employers are legally obliged to provide crèche facilities for labourers.

Further, over 90% of women in each state expressed interest in working if crèche facilities were available, the study said.

Like the anganwadi programmes (local maternal and child healthcare centres), the National Crèche Scheme--a sub-scheme of ICDS--is tasked with improving child nutritional and health status. Reducing the prevalence of malnourished children across the country (36% in 2015-16) is a particular focus, and crèches carry out routine weighing, immunisations and provide annual medical check-ups.

The National Plan of Action for Children (NPAC) 2016, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, recommended at least 5% of the Union budget be spent on schemes and programmes directly related to children if India wanted to improve child health, education and safety indicators, to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets by 2030.

In 2018-19, 3.4% of the union budget was allocated to children, which fell from the decadal peak of 4.8% in 2012-13. The ICDS programme which reaches 54% of the nation’s children, experienced a shortfall of Rs 45,377 crore ($6.3 billion) between 2012-17. No more than Rs 78,203 crore ($10.9 billion) was allocated to the scheme, compared with the Rs 1,23,580 crore ($17.2 billion) proposed during the Twelfth Five Year Plan.

“We have been raising this issue for many years--there’s simply no budget for children in this country,” said Savitri Ray, assistant professor at the centre for women’s development studies (CWDS).

“There’s also a huge need to sensitise the Gram Panchayats (village councils) on the day-to-day matters affecting women and children,” Ray added. “Since there’s no women present in these spaces, [the men] simply don’t discuss issues like crèches.”

Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs)--local self-governing institutions--are the hyper-local implementers of government programmes, but their role has, in the past, often only existed on paper. Training PRIs can increase funding for women and child development schemes.

“The panchayats have no idea that extending the hours of anganwadis for example could help to provide working women with proper day-care,” Ray added. “They are not trained to make these decisions and so they simply don’t take place.”

Turning existing anganwadis into anganwadi-cum-crèches was a solution presented in the 12th Five Year Plan to increase the reach of government childcare facilities by leveraging an established ICDS resource. The aim was to convert 5% of total anganwadis over the five year period from 2012-17.

But with no public data available on the numbers that have been converted, it is hard to determine how successful this has been.

“In reality we have seen the quality of anganwadis deteriorate,” Ray said. “The staff are already overworked and unable to perform their duties to the best of their ability, and now we want them to do even more?”

Prasad says she is worried that crèches are not covered by any food security act or Supreme Court decree like anganwadis, which enshrines their existence, protecting them from closure.

“Crèches don’t figure here except for a brief mention in labour laws like MGNREGA,” she said. “But we know there’s no oversight there and that crèche facilities on construction, mining or agriculture sites are just not happening.”

Governments struggling to provide basic services can sometimes look to the private sector for help instilling efficiency drives and cost-saving measures. While privatisation could bring benefits such as more operational crèches and service expansion, there are concerns over companies motivated by profit rather than public interest taking charge of welfare programmes.

Prasad suggests that the current disengagement observed by the Centre over the National Crèche Scheme implies privatisation is exactly what the government has in mind. Though she feels the programme has been successful in its current form of helping NGOs that run crèches, she believes that complete privatisation would impact the programme adversely, lowering crèche quality and undermining the primary focus on child development.

“Crèches are an essential public service which the government should not be outsourcing,” Prasad said.

“Whether the Centre is planning to shift responsibility to private service providers, or is thinking of self-help and community groups to start providing crèches, it’s clear the government certainly does not want to enter into it,” said Mishra, the executive director at Mobile Creches.

“Running crèches for six days a week, eight hours each day, means recognising crèche workers as a cadre of qualified frontline staff, providing minimum wage and all sorts of social security provisions,” she added. “That’s a responsibility the government is just not willing to take and is one of the biggest reasons we believe the government is not interested in crèches.”

She likens the situation to that of anganwadi workers. Anganwadi staff, like crèche workers, are currently paid honorariums (nominal and often irregular payments) rather than salaries, are devoid of the permanent job status, holiday leave, minimum wage, medical and retirement benefits that come with it.

At no more than Rs 4,500 per month for a worker, and Rs 2,250 per month for a helper, anganwadi workers are routinely found striking, requesting higher pay (minimum wage for government employees was set at Rs 18,000 by the 7th pay commission) and greater appreciation of their role in implementing the world’s largest integrated early childhood development programme.

The pre-school education sector in India is one area where private organisations have capitalised on the absence of government oversight, thriving in a largely unregulated industry, not subject to standards, established norms or monitoring.

“In recent years, you have seen hundreds of thousands of private affordable pre-primary, preschool and day-care centres come up across the country,” Mishra said. “They fall outside the ambit of the Right To Education Act and there are no minimum requirements which they have to meet. These are the same concerns we have around the push for privatisation of crèches.”

While there’s no tender out yet for private organisations to bid for the operation of the scheme, those working in the sector fear it may not be far off. Mobile Creches and other similar organisations are currently advocating for a comprehensive review and needs assessment which maps the demand for crèches around the country, before the Centre considers ending the scheme or bringing in private industry or mechanisms into its place.

“In a market-driven model, there is no way to ensure that the most needy mother will be able to afford her three children going to a private crèche,” Mishra said. “So you will end up further excluding this population.”

(Sanghera is a writer and researcher with IndiaSpend.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.