Mina Swaminathan: institution builder, friend of Indian children

Mina Swaminathan’s passing is a loss for generations of scholars, practitioners and activists who have been inspired by her work. It is especially a loss for the Indian sector of the anganwadi. She was a pioneering educator, researcher and activist for women’s equality. She was a tireless friend to the children of India, especially those without privileges.

In the decades following independence, a generation of women leaders, including Mina Swaminathan, created remarkable organizations. These would lay the foundation for important social welfare programs in the young nation. Mina was deeply involved in pioneering initiatives such as the Center for Studies in Women’s Development (CSDS) and mobile crèches. His greatest contribution was leading the group whose report would become the basis of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in India.

Born in 1933, Mina was the daughter of Tamil writer “Krithika” Mathuram Bhoothalingam and civil servant and economist S Bhoothalingam.

At Cambridge, Mina met her future husband, the agronomist MS Swaminathan. Both were committed to nation building in independent India. After the devastation caused by the Bengal famine, Swaminathan chose to study agriculture. He would go on to become an institution builder, leader of the Green Revolution in India and the first winner of the World Food Prize.

Mina’s contributions were equally considerable. In 1970, he was asked to chair a study group on early childhood development. The group included Chitra Naik, JP Naik and Anil Bordia. Their report, delivered in 1972, was a powerful call to action: “Year by year, the gap between the privileged and the less widened…Social justice requires attention to the preschool child because the first five years are crucial for all forms of development. “The report became the basis for the ICDS, the largest such program in the world.

Mina believed that children and mothers deserved better support. She wrote: “When a woman says, ‘I stopped working because I had to take care of my child’, society accepts it as a natural instinct for a mother. This is obviously not enough – it requires the involvement of father and family, society and the state, if children are to be born for happiness and not just for existence. For breastfeeding campaigns to go beyond slogans, she says, women need nutritional support.

As early as 1979, she was writing about the children of the urban poor. Millions of children growing up in urban poverty, she noted, are invisible to politicians. This was due to an exclusive focus on rural India in the mistaken belief that all urban Indians had escaped poverty. She notes dryly: “Funds are not lacking for fountains, parks and the beautification of the city. Can’t the same resources be used for meaningful programs for children? »

In 1985, for the CSDS, she conducted a study on childcare services for low-income working women in India, entitled “Who Cares?” It was published by the feminist press Kali for Women. In her introduction, Vina Mazumdar said: “Like many of us who were the first generation of beneficiaries of the equality clauses of the Constitution, Mina Swaminathan had believed that the question of women was settled at the time of Independence … »

But the “women’s question” remains. Women were generally forced to work with the lowest wages and the weakest skills, such as childcare, which made them almost invisible in the labor market. Mina stressed that it was important not only to provide good childcare, but also quality training for childcare workers. She warned that a one-size-fits-all approach would not suit India’s diversity.

She has been an educator and mentor throughout her life, encouraging scholars to learn about the lived realities of women and children. Research, she said, must ultimately “engage the passions in a call to action, but action must be carried out in a climate of understanding.”

Fifty years ago, it was a bold and powerful vision to propose the establishment of anganwadis across the country. Today, there are over a million Anganwadis in India, and twice as many workers, providing multiple services to several million mothers and children. It reminds me of the character in a play by George Bernard Shaw who says, “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream of things that never existed; and I say ‘Why not?’ Mina Swaminathan asked, on behalf of the children of India: Why not?

This column first appeared in the print edition of March 18, 2022 under the title “His network of care”. The writer is in the IAS. Views are personal

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