This was indeed an eye opener kind of meeting. It made me wonder why we treat our youngest citizens so bad. They are the future of this country. Dull and weak kids means dull and weak country.
A meeting on social entrepreneurship for UnLtd Delhi with Jyotsna Lall of the Nizamuddin Basti Renewal project turned into a interesting discussion around raising children and early childhood development. Until I met her I had not seriously thought about the link between brain development, skills, classroom performance , nutrition and atmosphere in our homes.
What I learned was that the first 3 to 4 years of the lives are the most crucial for any child. The brain is full developed by then. Once that is set you can’t do much.
Now a good body and mind need two things: nutrition and stimulations. However most poor families can’t provide both to their kids. Poverty is definitely one of the reasons why this happens but their are host of other reasons as well. Poor knowledge is one of them.
Let’s first talk about nutrition. For instance in Nizamuddin Basti most kids probably get Rs 5-10 to buy cheez, as Jyotsna puts it ( a treat). But this money is spend on chips, Kurkure and other such snacks which have zero nutritional value. We know that Rs 10 will get you handful of almonds or Cashew or some nice peanuts. All of them are full of good things that we need. The child needs them even more. But these things are not easily available in small packing nearby in the Basti. Also because families are not aware of what is the link between nutrition and child development and hence don’t make too much of effort to make sure that the child is eating the right thing. The Basti renewable project has a interesting initiative called Zen a.k.a Zaika e Nizamuddin. This project is basically teaching women in the basti to make wholesome healthy snacks. For instance Til Ke laddo or dry fruit toffee. This stuff is then sold through Anaganwadi’s and other interfaces that project has with the community.
The second missing piece is early stimulation. Early stimulation as explained to me by Jyotsna is the baby talk that we do in our homes with kids. For instance a lot of us will tell their young one what they did in office. Oh you know today I made a presentation on how to sell maggi to more kids :). Child is given choice of things to eat- have an apple or a banana. We often ask them if they want to play or sing them songs. All these things add up to provide tonic to the brain. In poor homes where both parents are working on a daily wage the child doesn’t get this kind of stimulation. Even if one parent is at home who is often women she is too busy in other things that she has no time to play with the kids. So in a poor home the child is often told to do things. Eat this . Don’t do that. Don’t go out and the likes. As a result the brain doesn’t develop the capacity to take decisions ( for instance a child who choses between apple and banana). Because no one talks extensively to the child, the child’s vocabulary is also very limited. And to learn through books and conversations you need to know words. And eventually all this shows up in studies. That is why it is so important for the first 3-4 years to play with the children.
In a country like India with some 500 million poor people not every kid has a fair chance to do well in life. If you are born in a poor family what you will end up doing in your life is more or less set unless you are a genius. Just imagine your and my kid is going to get good food, lots of talk, will grow up around books and periodicals, will watch discovery channel and play video games. And on top of that he or she will go to a good school. How will a poor child with poor nutrition and no learning atmosphere will every compete with him or her. And this is why we need affirmative action to have an equal level field.
Our current Govt is obsessed with skill building and make in India. They essentially wants us to become a nation of cheap labourers. Instead they should be focussing all their energies on women and child care. We should be building better Anganwadis, making sure mother and child get proper nutrition, primary schools and prep schools are better managed. This should be our top priority as a country because our little ones are dependent on our care and support and they are counting on us. These little citizens need the best that we can give to them as a country and as a society.