A large body of contemporary literature on �human capital� has by default considered the term to be synonymous with education. It is well established that investments in education translate into higher future earnings and differences in incomes can hence be attributed to differences in education. But a fundamental factor that could more effectively explain variations in educational success of children, and later life outcomes such as income-differentials, susceptibility to disease, etc., is development that happens early in life.
Early child development refers to the sequential emergence of interdependent skills � sensorimotor, cognitive language, and social-emotional functioning. The phenomenon in itself is complex as it is conditional on biological, genetic, social and physical environment in which children are brought up. A child�s experiences and environments during early childhood are critical for immediate development of the brain and many biological systems.
Socio-economic status is a proxy for a range of household and community characteristics such as nutrition, housing, parenting, health care and social experiences. Nutrition, however, is a key mediator of the effects of socio-economic status on the child�s well-being. Malnourished children are more vulnerable to infections and are more likely to die from common childhood ailments such as diarrhoea and respiratory infections. Recurrent illnesses weaken the nutritional status in young bodies, binding them into a vicious cycle of frequent sickness and faltered growth. Undernourishment, a shortfall in the amount of food energy consumed on a regular basis, is an underlying cause, often compounded by severe and repeated infections, particularly in disadvantaged sections of the populations [i] . In addition to the efficacy of nutrition in child development, more recent research efforts have examined the effect of household and community level sanitation on childhood cognitive skills and morbidity[ii] . Poor sanitation is linked to adverse nutritional outcomes by leading to frequent incidence of diarrhoea and other gastro-intestinal disorders that preclude nutrient absorption.
Institutions too are significant contributors to early child survival and development. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme is representative of Indian government�s commitment to provide pre-school education to children age 3-6 years, and reduce the incidence of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality for children under-5 years of age. Even though the ICDS program has followed a holistic approach to cater to the needs of child survival and development, the scheme has had only �modest positive effects�[iii] .
In discussions of trainability, early years of life have so far received little attention. This is particularly because there has been a greater emphasis on measures of overall cognitive development like �IQ�, which is relatively difficult to assess until the commencement of formal primary schooling. Similary, interventions that target at improving schooling outcomes or cognitive abilities are perceived to be more successful than pre-schooling or direct interventions in the family. Early trainability skills, however, are inculcated by families and immediate environments, much before formal academic institutions can intervene. More formally referred to as non-cognitive, these skills are vital for shaping traits like memory, attention, self-discipline, and adaptability, that are equally valued by employers.
Even though non-cognitive abilities are difficult to measure, they play a significant role in determining schooling and labour market success. Such findings are supported by studies of early childhood interventions that substantially improve non-cognitive skills, but only weakly affect cognitive ability. Much of the effectiveness of such interventions comes in fostering emotional security and motivation in children, traits that trigger child exploration in early years of life.The intuitive premise of these findings is simple: when the foundations of early life are built on disadvantaged circumstances, schools play only an inconsequential role to make up for the damage done. As schools work with what parents give them, educational outcomes/cognitive skills suffer for those whose deficiencies are left untreated.
Therefore, early child stimulation occurs through highly complex interactions between children and their immediate environments. Interactions between children and pre-primary instituions are hence essential for shaping skills that predict schooling achievement and labour productivity in adulthood. Moreover, capabilities are augmented at subsequent stages if they are effectively produced during preceding stages. If capabilities are garnered successively at early stages of life, greater returns to human capital formation can be reaped at subsequent stages.
i. World Health Organization, Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition.
ii. Poor hygiene poses dangers for own households and households in close proximity. Spears (2012) has discussed the negative externalities associated with the issue of open defecation in India.
iii. World Bank. India: Challenges of Development. Overview of Sectoral Assistance Evaluations. Washington DC, 2002.
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Spears, D. (2012). Policy Lessons from Implementing India’s Total Sanitation Campaign. NCAER , 1-32.