Remembering Mina Swaminathan: An Icon of ECCE in India
Author : Dr.Adarsh Sharma
It is a great moment of honour and privilege for me to be present amidst all of you to commemorate and celebrate the unparalleled contributions of a unique, versatile, and passionate human being… Mina Swaminathan – who spent many years of her life to pursue the conviction of providing quality education to young children and childcare services for working women particularly from marginalised sections of society.
It is almost unimaginable that she managed to muster professional, political, and national attention to rather unrecognised issues related to ECCE and successfully link it with childcare services as a right and crucial provision for social justice in women’s lives. Her book who cares was in-depth analysis of child care and early development in 1985.
I am overwhelmed and feel very blessed to have known Mina di as fondly addressed by me for over five decades. At the outset therefore, I would like to take the liberty of paying a personal tribute to her as a mentor and a role model.
With extreme gratitude I would like to mention how she changed the trajectory of my life and working with her on several endeavours related to ECCE positively impacted my professional career.
Be it as the office bearer of Indian Association for Preschool Education (IAPE), National Curriculum Framework 2005, being a part of the landmark study Quality Matters, contributing to her books… The First Five Year of Life, Disciplinary Dialogue on Social Change and coordinating Case Studies of Best Practices of ECE.
Listening to her in workshops and seminars related to ECCE was always enriching and an opportunity for great learning.
She was a born leader, a Guru, and a mentor. Her guidance and inspiration facilitated me in acquiring both professional and life skills. Her warm reassurance helped me navigate many challenges and highs and lows in my life. I cannot think of a better way to describe her gentle and firm disposition than… a coconut, hard on top and soft from inside.
I am particularly thankful to Mina Ji for teaching me true work ethics and work life balance. She was the best role model any one can ask for and I bow down in reverence Mina di for taking me under your wing.
After this very personal note, let us now dwell on and delineate the contributions made by her in the field of ECCE and child care, especially the immense and undeniable influence she has had in the movement of ECCE in India.
In her role as an educator, activist and fierce advocate, she brought on centre stage issues related to the young child and women in the development process. Cutting across all levels… from grassroots to academic debate and policy formulation with a creative approach and empirical evidence.
“Mina was an eminent teacher, educator and writer and she will be always remembered for her contribution to gender equality, women, and child development“, as stated by the Honourable Governor of Tamil Nadu RN Ravi in condolence at the time of her passing.
She worked steadfastly throughout her life towards making stakeholders understand the importance of contextualised issues in imparting services meant for the poor and marginalised. The focus of her endeavours was the principle of egalitarian education for all children with an objective to amplify early childhood priority, overlapping rights of working mothers… an intersectoral agenda ranging from maternity entitlement to the right of education of under six.
As mentioned by Mina Ji, in her oral history that in her formative and growing years she enjoyed the comforts of a luxurious lifestyle, went to Cambridge for her studies and had no exposure to what a life of deprivation and disadvantage could mean. What an amazing transformation and heart-warming change for her to be known and remembered today as an activist who fearlessly spoke on behalf of the marginalised.
If described chronologically, these accomplishments can be traced as an eventful Journey. Though difficult to record all landmarks, at this juncture I will try to trace the important milestones.
Historically, commitment to child development and childcare is nothing new for Indian culture. It was a mandatory social responsibility of parents, family, and community to take care of young children during formative years. All religions and mythological literature prescribed rules for taking care of the young ones.
Extrafamilial institutions only surfaced in 1890. Followed by exemplary work of philosophers and educationists like Gijubhai Badheka and Tarabai Modak, among others, who became the pioneers of organised initiative of ECCE in India during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The wealth of these developmentally appropriate practices slowly became extinct in the humdrum of new so-called modern provisions of child care.
In the post-independence era, the Constitution under its article 24b, 39 (e,g) and 45 made it obligatory for the Government and society to ensure development of children which resulted in the steady expansion of ECCE services which were still in the voluntary sector and not a priority in public Initiatives. Low Socioeconomic families whose needs were greater due to impoverished dismal home environment had minimal access to ECCE services.
It was only the substantial contributions of Mina Swaminathan and her concerted endeavours that changed the ECCE scenario in the country.
The Study Group on the Development of the Preschool Child was set up in 1972 with Mina Swaminathan as its convenor. It transformed the history of services for the young child in India. Mina Swaminathan from that day on became a crusader with a passion to work for the poor and the marginalised. A champion for equity in accessing integrated services for all children.
Since all aspects of development are synergistically interrelated… all needs of children therefore require to be addressed through a holistic approach was emphasised by the study group. The approach was translated into ICDS, a flagship programme of the Government of India and has been universalised across the country covering almost all administrative blocks.
The strong urge of Mina Swaminathan to be a teacher of poor children made her try several options. She taught at St Thomas school, started Nehru Experimental centre at IARI and opened Balwadies on campus for Agricultural Labourers.
Her creativity and ingenuity made her an expert in using low-cost learning material and drama as a communication tool in education and awareness building. She used this learning and talent extensively in Mobile Crèches under the banner of Lok Doot.
Mobile Creches provided her a platform to experiment with teacher education. The job training concept for childcare workers has its beginning with her experience at Mobile Creches of training local community women as volunteers to run Balwadies.
Creative engagement with educational practices was also displayed in Workshops of IAPE and became an integral feature of the Annual IAPE conferences. Mina ji used the learnings from her experience on pedagogical innovations and documented these in teacher’s manuals and guidebooks authored by her.
Staring with the Manual and guidebook for teachers of 4-6 years and another one for caretakers working with children under the age of three. Balak Journal of IAPE was edited by her for decades and almost all issues published her articles. In the early 70s Balak was perhaps the only Journal /Magazine of ECCE in India.
Her efforts created visibility for IAPE as a professional association that was recognised by the Government of India and invited to participate in the process of development. It became a pressure group for the campaign of the young child. Be it the committee for FiveYear Plans or New Education Policy, Mina Swaminathan was a member, more for her personal credentials but also represented IAPE.
In the Review Committee of Acharya Ramamoorthy (1986) Mina Ji and Anil Sadgopal pleaded for interpretation of Article 45 for right to education and argued that the education process needs to begin at Birth and not at Entry to school. It echoed the opening statement of the Jomtien Declaration “Learning begins at Birth”.
Mina Swaminathan took the lead in organising public rallies, campaigns and approached Parliamentarians but was given no credence. Unfortunately, the 86th amendment resulted in Article 21 A that included only children 6-14 years in Right to Education Act of 2002. Exclusion of 3-5 years saddened her and many of her fraternity members.
Her conviction of linking Early Child Development and Child Care was so profound that Mina was instrumental in setting up the Forum for Creches and Childcare Services (FORCES ) in 1989 which resulted in the set-up of the National Creche Fund by the Government which is used by NGOs to provide crèches across the country.
It is very heartening to see that, if not during her lifetime, some of the issues and agenda she strived for have culminated in favourable outcomes. With global developments, ECCE is now a buzz word in the process of development even in India. In reorganised ICDS, ECCE has been given due focus, with home-based interventions for under threes. Some states have taken the initiative of introducing AWC cum Creches model.
The Municipal Corporation of Delhi at her insistence started nursery classes in all their schools and are continuing to do so even today. The recently announced National Education Policy 2022 has taken in its fold 3-6 years as legitimate beneficiaries of the educational system. The early years learning pedagogy has been extended to eight years with the launch of a uniform curriculum for Foundation Years by the Ministry of Education. States are in the process of contextualising curriculum to their specific requirements.
All the above concerns were so close to her heart; I am sure she is watching from above and showering her blessings. The seeds sown by her are slowly blossoming into flowers and fruits.
Mina Ji once shared how she refused the offer of a Ph.D with a renowned Professor and instead opted to be a teacher of poor children. She had no regrets and said, “I have a Ph.D from the School of life”. Which is so apt as a statement as her desire to learn and experiment was so deeply embedded in her that she left no stone unturned to discover, explore and experiment.
Her field exposures added a lot of insights and knowledge about working with people. Whether it was her travels to Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Hanoi or near Chennai in Tamil Nadu, her perceptive observations and analytical skills gave her the ability to translate learnings into useful outcomes.
Documenting experiences as case studies, preparing manuals, guidebooks, planning training workshops, making an intervention model, or planning a project targeted at quality child development and women empowerment. Starting at MSSRF both Action for Child Care Education Strategies and Services (ACCES) and Uttara Devi Research Projects are a true testimony to that acumen she was blessed with.
I feel I have neither the ability nor the time to comprehensively list or do justice to her lifelong contributions. The narrative so far clearly illustrates she was focused on pursuing issues with extreme seriousness and a deep understanding.
The title of the tribute calls her an ICON. An icon is described as “a person of distinctive excellence who is widely admired and recognised for having great influence or significance in a particular sphere” … Mina Swaminathan is truly a Legendary Icon of ECCE.
At the end, I urge many of us who have been closely associated with her to be sensitive to the fact that she has handed over the baton to us and together we are ethically bound to continue to strive to take her unfinished goals and lifelong contributions forward.
In Professor Swaminathan’s words… “It is our duty to ensure that the many buds she has helped create do not end up as blossoms on the dust but are enabled to flower and bear fruits”.
I humbly bow down once again in reverence to Mina di for all that I have learnt at her feet and the countless lives she has touched. OM Shanti!
The blog is written by Dr Adarsh Sharma, Former Director NIPCCD, Consultant – Social Development.
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) established in 1988 is a not-for-profit trust. MSSRF was envisioned and founded by Professor M S Swaminathan, agriculture scientist with proceeds from the First World Food Prize that he received in 1987.