NEW DELHI, March 2 -- Asha, 3, sits quietly by herself in a corner of the anganwadi centre in a tiny village in southern Rajasthan. There are 15 children at this government day care centre. Many play with toys, scratch pictures on their slates, horse around. There are bright wall pictures, and a patient anganwadi worker does her best to manage the kids.

But my eyes keep going back to Asha, and I notice three others like her - listless, staring into nothingness, unwilling or unable to participate, and it is deeply saddening. They are victims of a circumstance that affects almost a third of India's children: no one paid attention to their early childhood care and development (ECCD), the essential learn by playing that is most needed before t...