Mumbai: The 1,000-day window of opportunity--the time between pregnancy and a child's second birthday--is critical to a child's development. But early childhood care has not received much institutional attention. The new National Education Policy, which changed the academic structure from a 10+2+3 structure (where most children come into school at the age of six) to add a foundational phase that looks at the age-group between three and six years. But what happens before that is critical, has been acknowledged, but very little has been done about it. Lack of access to childcare also leaves women out of the workforce, and poor working mothers are disproportionately affected.

There are laws and schemes around this. For instance, there is the National Creche Scheme, and the Maternity Benefit Act mandates that large organisations set up creches, but compliance is poor.

What is the thinking on this to institutionalise this? What do we need to do to ensure that women get access to childcare? And finally and most importantly, how can networks including those women respond to this?

We speak with Mirai Chatterjee, chairperson, SEWA Cooperative Federation, Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) based out of Ahmedabad. SEWA is a national trade union of self-employed women with over 1.5 million members, and it was set up in 1972. Chatterjee also serves as the chairperson of Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO), a global network of informal workers and policymakers, and also sits on the boards of several organisations including the Public Health Foundation of India, Save the Children, PRADAN and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. She holds a bachelors in history and science from Harvard University and a masters in health sciences from Johns Hopkins University.

Edited excerpts:

Take us through where we are in our understanding of and our response to childcare and childcare infrastructure today.

I am happy to report that our thinking on early childhood care certainly has developed significantly from the time when we started working on this issue, almost 50 years ago now. This issue was staring us squarely in the face, because we have been organising for women of the informal economy for almost five decades, and the first thing women said to us was, 'Our lives are what they are. But we work and live for our children. And we dream of a better future for them'. We all have the same dreams for our children. And that's really how we began to work on this issue. And I recall how when we first brought up this issue of early childhood care, about 40 years ago, with policymakers, they were somewhat puzzled, and said, 'Childcare? Isn't that what mothers are supposed to do--stay home and take care of children?' And then, we had to explain to them that for poor working women, it's not a choice. They have to work and they also have to take care of their children. And if we provide basic childcare for them--full-day childcare--near where they live or where they work, then they can work and earn more.

So, it's taken us several decades, but I definitely think now there is a deeper understanding of this. I would say that even in the new education policy, it's a step forward that we are speaking now for the 3+ [years] children, but I would say that actually, education and care and holistic development of children starts much earlier. It starts even before they are born. But even if we take from when they are born, the 0-2 years age-group--which is called the first 1,000 days of life--are absolutely critical. And that is the time when poor working women need full-day childcare support the most.

And we do of course have the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). That scheme is being run by the Government of India. And that is a good backbone on which we can build further our childcare services for the very young child. However, ICDS only runs for about 3-4 hours. In some states like Tamil Nadu, it might be longer. But it still is not according to the hours of poor working women, 94% of whom are engaged in the informal economy. So really, this is a critical issue.

And if I may say so, this Covid [pandemic] has brought it even more to light because all childcare centres were closed. Even SEWA's own creches, which we run through our Sangini childcare cooperative, had to close down because of the directions, and it was just plain unsafe during Covid times. We are still in Covid times, and the ICDS centres have still not opened. We have chosen to open the creches run by our Sangini Balsewa cooperative. But it has been very hard for women.

Let me just give you a snapshot. A recent study which we have done together with the Institute of Social Sciences Trust brought out the fact that 99% of poor working families who were interviewed said they had a huge financial impact, and 85% of women in those families said they were not able to get back to work. First of all, they lost their livelihoods. Those who had small jobs lost those jobs. But the biggest reason of all they said was that they are very busy with care work. So what has come through this pandemic is an understanding of the huge care economy where women play a disproportionately large role--elderly care, care of the sick, and obviously, childcare--especially of the very young child. They can't go back to work. And conversely, in our over 40 years of working on this issue, we have done numerous studies through the years, and we have seen that if full-day childcare is provided according to the needs of poor working women--and indeed, poor working people in general--the incomes of women go up by at least 50%, and very often, they more than double. So this is the situation. These facts are known.

Tell us about where we are in terms of our interventions today, and what's changed in the last decade, and leading up to and onwards from the new education policy, which has to play out.

I think first of all, as we say in SEWA, [there is] "struggle of concept". I think now the concept of the importance or the criticality of early childhood care is well understood. These years are the absolute backbone of what happens to the child later on not just in education, but holistic development--health, nutrition, education, cognitive development, emotional development and so on. These things are now very well known. And I think they've also been well accepted by policymakers in our country. I remember, some years ago, when education policies and the right to education was being debated, many of us in early childhood care were pushing hard that the right to education should start much earlier--as I said, in the very early years of childhood. But that was not to be. We lost that struggle at that time. So it's good to see that now [children aged] three and above are incorporated in the new education policy. But I would argue that's not enough. We have to go much earlier. As I said, learning and education literally starts from the cradle.

The gap between the number of hours of childcare actually provided and what is ideal is about 5-6 hours. How do we bridge that gap? Can it be done through policy and maybe more entrepreneurial responses?

That's a very good question, and the short answer would be, both. But let me elaborate. SEWA is leading--along with Mobile Creches, Save the Children and others--a national campaign for quality childcare for all. Our demands or requests of the government are: They need to invest much more in early childhood care--up to 1% of GDP; and extend the ICDS. There is already the backbone, the framework of ICDS. Build on that, extend the hours of ICDS, and have perhaps one more person assisting. Not only is it good for children, it will also provide employment to local women. And those children will grow and prosper, and so will their parents who will go out and earn more, and bring in food and other essentials for the family. This will not substantially increase the costs. Actually, the ICDS workers spend a lot of time in bookkeeping, record keeping and so on. So you extend [childcare] at least to an eight-hour day--obviously, many working people work more than eight hours--but at least eight hours, you must have full-day holistic care.

We've also been saying that the experience in countries like ours is, it's very difficult to run these kind of centres in a proper way. The quality tends to be very mixed. In some states, they run very well, and in other states, it's poor quality. So what we've been saying is why not hand over the running of these centres to local women--through their self-help groups (SHGs), SHG federations, through cooperatives like the SEWA-promoted Sangini Balsewa cooperative, which will run it in a better way, but also to some extent, with a revenue model. Because actually, we are arguing, these children are not just the responsibility of their biological parents. These children are our children. They belong to all of society.

In our model of Sangini, what we've seen is the cooperative works well if parents pay. And in our case, parents pay Rs 300 per child per month, it's a contribution; the total costs are Rs 1,000 per child per month. It's not a huge amount to invest in the children of our country, I'm sure. We also collect community contributions. We find that in India, people are ready to give for food, there's the annadaan concept, and some local people give wheat, rice, etc., and on their birthdays or special feast days, the children get a special treat and so on. So, you can mobilise in kind from the community. And then [there is] also the business community, our corporates, who are resting on this vast informal economy. As I said, these are our children. And the least we can do is to give the children of our country a good start in life, to let them experience the joy of learning. So we are seeing it as a kind of confluence of different contributions from different sectors of society, a kind of solidarity towards the working poor of this country.

How many young mothers and children under six, in your understanding, need to be covered under some form of childcare at any point of time?

For all working women--rich or poor--childcare is critical. Obviously, it is more of a life and death situation for poor working women, because better off women can have nannies, and there are now several early childhood centres. Recently, we had some discussions with them. And I was amazed, parents pay anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000 a month. We cannot even imagine, in the clientele we work with, this kind of outlay. But more power to them, of course.

So if we look at the informal economy, it is about 430 million [workers]. If we take half of them to be women, and not all women are young mothers, we are talking about at least 100-150 million poor working women who need this kind of support so that they can go out to work and earn and double their incomes. This is an investment not only in the children of our country; this is an investment in the Indian economy. If a quarter of your population is not able to go out and work, what does that do to our total economy? Imagine the economic forces that are unleashed if large numbers of women enter the workforce--which they very much want to do.

And I think there can be many models. You asked about the business/revenue model. We believe it is possible. Recently, at a webinar, the head of the World Bank's early childhood Amanda Devercelli said that there are no examples anywhere in the world of childcare for low-income people being totally sustainable. That may be the case. But our experience is that poor parents are willing to put some money down. So, I think the government should allow that--provided that it is not exploitative, that all the accounting is done properly. At a certain moment, we were running more than 100 ICDS centres, and we took commission from the Gujarat government. I must say they had great foresight at the time. And we said we will extend from their 2-3 hours, we will do 7-8 hours. And for the extra hours, allow us to take some fees from the parents to cover costs. The parents gave it happily and the government was fine with it.

Is the government not allowing that? What is the policy stance on this?

I think no one has really thought it through. We had a tough time convincing our state government [in Gujarat] because they are worried, and rightly so, that people may raise questions: What's happening? Isn't this what the government is supposed to do, and so on. So, the ideal would be that the entire investment should be from the government. And then the add-on or the value-add or the topping up can be done by the local community, in cash or in kind. And by the way, we also find that people even give money. We've received ceiling fans, and all kinds of equipment and support. Because they are our children. People give for children in this country.

We've looked at it from the mothers' point of view, and the fact that, as you said, the number of hours that a mother could actually work and the earning potential goes up dramatically. How do children benefit by getting this kind of institutional care in the early years?

Oh, I wish I could take you to one of our creches. They are such happy places. These children [otherwise] have so little attention, so little exposure, they don't have toys, they don't have books, they don't have play materials, and crayons and paper. They are happy spaces, and these children grow and bloom. We have both girls and boys, and equally, they start primary school. We find that 100% of our children go to the first standard, and the report that we get from teachers is that they are delighted. They say we can really see the difference between children who've been through this early childhood education process and others who have not had the opportunity. They often thank us. All of our children go on to high school, but many of them have gone on to college. Some have become doctors, lawyers. Some of them now contribute to the Sangini cooperative's viability, financial sustainability when they begin to earn. Because they say it was a life changer, it was a game changer for them. Their parents left them there in the creche early morning and came back in the evening. And the creche teachers, our bal sevikas, were like their second mothers. In fact, often on Sundays, they pressurise their parents to take them to the Balsewa Kendra, the centre.

Let me ask you about the role of menfolk. That's another area I'm sure you've been looking at, as must policy and policymakers. Have we come any distance in that regard? If not, what more or how further do we have to go?

I'm happy to report significant progress on this as well, at least as far as the SEWA cooperative is concerned. As a women's organisation, perhaps we didn't reach out to men as much as we should have. But for the last 10 years, we have been actively reaching out. And every quarter, the fathers of our children come to the centre, they are actively engaged, they help in fundraising locally, they are very keen to monitor the progress and wellbeing of their children--everything from immunisation to is my child learning alphabets and numbers. They are very involved. I think times have changed, things have changed somewhat, I am happy to report. Many people see on television, on their phones, through the internet, the changes that are happening in other countries--how fathers are actively engaged in raising their children, and getting a lot of joy out of it. It's not just the mere fact of taking the burden off women. There's that too, and that is important, and frankly, that is the reason we started reaching out to the fathers. The women said, 'We have no peace. We are working round the clock. Tell him to also come in and help'. But from that starting point, to see how engaged and active they are, it is really heartening, and I think lots of lessons for all of us from there.

Your word of advice or an appeal to those who want to or could consider early childcare as an entrepreneurial opportunity?

I think for us, honestly, it is still a work in progress because our Sangini Balsewa cooperative has not attained financial sustainability yet because as I told you, the clientele we are focussed on are low income. One of the things we were experimenting quite successfully before the pandemic was providing childcare through our experienced bal sevikas to formal sector settings, who by a Supreme Court ruling are required to provide childcare for their women staff. And we had a very good experience with the Reserve Bank of India in Ahmedabad. We had just 10 children in their creche, and we were asked to take care of them, run the whole system, and we were charging 10 times more--Rs 3,000 per child, and the mothers were ready to go up to Rs 5,000 per child per month. So that kind of cross-subsidised the lower-income children, some of the creches.

That is one way that we are thinking of, but as I said, it is still a work in progress. You can form a cooperative, a company. A lot depends on what your thinking is. In our case, we are a workers' organisation. So for us, a cooperative was a natural progression because it is also a membership-based organisation like a union, and one woman-one vote, each woman has a share, and whatever profits come are equally divided and so on. But you can just as soon form a company, and many people have. I think the challenge is how to focus on people who are earning less than $2 a day, somewhere in the range of Rs 200-Rs 500 a day, and still become financially sustainable. That's honestly a big question mark, and as I said, we are still on that journey.

As you look ahead, what can someone watching/reading this do to help your effort specifically or the cause of transforming young children's lives much before they even reach school?

I think there are two levels of action, and we very much appreciate solidarity not just from the communities where our creches are embedded, but from all sectors of society, because as I said, these are our children, our collective responsibility. So first of all, our cooperative does look for CSR and donations and support. It is Rs 3 lakh per creche per year, and that's not a huge amount of money by any standard. We need to open many many more; every day we get requests. So that's one level, for the Sangini cooperative or other organisations like ours. And the second level is, whether we can all join hands to say to our government--state governments, central government--and even globally, through multilateral organisations like the World Bank (which are quite convinced by the way) that this is actually a good investment. This is not expenditure. This is investing in a country's future, both investing in our children and also in their working parents who anyway are making huge economic contributions. So it behoves all of us to join hands, to contribute in cash, in kind, by engaging in dialogue with our governments, by engaging in dialogue internationally, globally, to make sure that no child is left behind and every child has an opportunity for early childhood care from birth itself.

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