No funds were released by the Centre in FY 2021-22 for the functioning of creches under the National Creche Scheme. This was revealed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) while responding to an RTI filed by Businessline. "Creches have not been functional under this scheme since the outbreak of Covid-19," the response said. However, upon investigation we found out that creches in several cities were functional during this period, utilising funds from their own corpus.

The scheme, previously known as the Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme for The Children of Working Mothers dates back to January 1, 2006. It was launched to primarily nurture children between six months to six years from mothers belonging to low-income groups who go to work at least 15 days in a month. While BPL families pay ₹20 per child per month, the fee ranges from ₹100 to ₹200 for others.

The centre provides 60 per cent of the funds in all states, except the Himalayan and North Eastern states. The remaining 30 per cent funds are provided by the state, while NGOs puts in 10 per cent from their corpus.

The ministry's response also says that the budget allocation for the scheme has come down by 59 per cent between FY19 and FY22. Moreover, as many as 11,582 creches functioning under this scheme have been shut down between FY18 and FY20. While there were 18,040 creches at the beginning of FY18, by FY20 the number had shrunk to 6,458.

Creches during Covid

While ₹53 crore was budgeted for the scheme in FY22, the expense was revised to ₹4 crore. The actual expense as shown in the Union Budget of 2022 is zero. In FY21, when the lockdowns were stringent, ₹11.6 crore was spent under this scheme.

But were creches really closed during FY22?

To find out, we visited and contacted a few creches in several cities. Padma Venkataraman, President, Women's India Association, an NGO that runs 17 creches in Chennai, tells us that during the first lockdown, the creches functioned remotely wherein they conducted activities online for children and that children started coming to their creches once restrictions were eased. "We used to run many more creches, but unfortunately, we had to close them down owing to lack of funds. All our creches function under the National Creche Scheme," she said while showing us around the creche where children were busy in activities on that particular day. "We train them in several activities and provide them with nutritious meals. Even during the lockdown, our bal-sevikas (creche workers) have been conducting activities for them via digital tablets," she said.

At the same time, Padma also said that the NGO has not received requisite funds under the scheme since 2019, from neither the state nor the Centre.

BusinessLine also accessed a letter that the NGO had written to the Centre on May 7, 2022, stating that they had not received a portion of the funds in FY20, and no funds whatsoever over the next two financial years. "We are paying salaries to our bal-sevikas regularly from our corpus fund, but now we are finding it very difficult to sustain the expenditure which comes to nearly ₹1,50,000 per month," the letter reads.

A spokesperson from the Ahmedabad based NGO, on condition of anonymity, also told us that they were yet to receive part of their dues from the government under the scheme. "Our creches have been functional since October 2020. During the lockdown, the need for creches was more, because the parents had to get to work and the mothers of these children are mostly daily wage labourers," she says.

On the other hand, a member of the Karnataka State Council For Children Welfare told us that the NGO does not run creches under NCS anymore, since they were told by authorities that the scheme has been discontinued. "Even prior to that, the release of funds wasn't regular," she said.

Answering a question in the Lok Sabha, WCD Minister Smriti Irani clarified that the scheme has not been discontinued, while adding, "Ever since the outbreak of the pandemic and subsequent restrictions, the functioning of creches has been affected as children were not able to attend."

According to the WCD's website, the last transaction that was done under this scheme was on June 1, 2020, when a sum of ₹38.7 lakhs was transferred for the upkeep of 479 creches in Kerala.

A walk back in time

Krishna Tirath, the WCD Minister during the second Manmohan Singh government, has been highly critical of the current government over low allocation and shutting down of creches. "I still see daily wagers struggling to find a proper creche for their toddlers. This was the whole purpose of the scheme. It is sad to see the condition of this scheme right now," she says.

Nevertheless, it is clear that insufficient fund allocation towards the scheme has always been an issue. In fact, in 2007, higher allocation of funds was one of the recommendations put forward by a parliamentary standing committee, which included prominent leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, Brinda Karat, Supriya Sule and Anant Kumar Hegde, that studied the scheme. "The Committee was informed that applications to open creches were pending, but the Ministry had no funds to initiate the process. The Committee, therefore, recommends that more funds be allocated under this head to meet the growing demand for creches. The scheme may be revamped and expanded and the Planning Commission should be approached for more allocation, emphasising the need for creches in view of safety of children of working mothers," it says in its report.