Catch them young: Inequality feeds off deprivation and is unbridgeable by adulthood. Forget quotas, focus on early childhood

Politicians in India endlessly obsessing over reservations as the grand panacea for stemming inequality are getting it all wrong. By the time someone is eligible for reservation in higher education institutions or government jobs, most people in a poor country like India would already have forfeited better worldly prospects. A Lancet study points out that inequality starts young – and it’s also easiest to overcome the hurdles of inequality when one is a child. The equity gap widens through a child’s formative years starting with factors like maternal deprivation and low birth weight. Subsequently, malnutrition, lack of early child development facilities and dysfunctional primary schooling create an unbridgeable gap at the cusp of adulthood.

Children undernourished in the first two years of life struggle with reduced adult height, lower attained schooling and adult incomes. Central and state governments need to focus more attention on this narrow band in the 0-2 age group to give a fighting chance for the mythical demographic dividend to translate into reality. This is where the Integrated Child Development Services programme which operates anganwadis and provides supplementary nutrition, pre-school education, immunisation, health and nutrition guidance for children below the age of six, pregnant and lactating mothers are failing to deliver.

Low salaries, vacant supervisory positions, poor toilet coverage, untrained personnel and decrepit infrastructure hobble anganwadis from achieving their goals. Tackling this rot could address dismal statistics like a third of Indian children being underweight and 50% of pregnant women anaemic. If inequality is to narrow, the conversation needs to shift from symbolic and superficial yet divisive policies like reservation to maternal and child health which offer opportunities to rescue millions from poor quality of life. Hope the politicians are also listening in.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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