Anganwadi workers, already stretched under low salaries and ruthless authorities unwilling to listen to their complaints, have shown lukewarm response to the Poshan Bhi, Padhai Bhi (Education along with Nutrition) scheme of the Central government.
The scheme, which depends on these Anganwadi workers for its successful execution, runs the risk of falling flat due to the workers’ lack of enthusiasm that stems from unaddressed grievances.
“This campaign Poshan bhi, Padhai bhi, which Smriti Irani launched now, is nothing new. It is already being run by Anganwadi. The government has highlighted the scheme only because it is really doing nothing on the ground,” Shivani Kaul, the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union (DSAWHU), told Patriot.
The scheme, launched on May 12, 2023, seeks to ensure holistic development of all children under the age of six, and is also expected to buttress the Early Childhood Care and Education programme under Mission Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0.
The Anganwadi workers will undergo proper training to ensure its implementation.
But apathy from the state government has left them not just dismayed but angry as well.
Last year in March 2022, 884 Anganwadi workers in Delhi were terminated from service for staging over a month-long strike demanding a raise in honorarium and respectable working hours. They claimed that despite serving the public relentlessly during the lockdown forced by Covid, they have not received their salaries since January and are somehow running their households by borrowing money.
Their case is being heard by the High Court.
Rajni Saini, who served as an Anganwadi worker for a decade, was the first to be terminated from Anganwadi by the government.
“I encouraged the Anganwadi workers to protest and go on strike, so they terminated me first,” she told Patriot.
Rajni said that they toiled hard in risky conditions of Covid but were not duly rewarded.
“We worked hard to distribute nutrition and pension during Covid. Although they did not provide us with masks and PPE kits, we helped the government night and day in Covid with Asha workers. We get only mandey (honorarium), not salary and no respect. The honorarium for Anganwadi worker is only 9,700 rupees and for helpers, just 4,800 rupees. We want our salary to be increased to Rs 25,000. We also want provident fund among other benefits.”
Egged on by Rajni, the workers began the strike on January 31, 2022. They sent letters and even met the directors in person at the headquarters.
“We also tried to meet the Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The supervisors were angry at those Anganwadi who questioned them. So, they terminated the 884 Anganwadi workers who had gone on strike.”
Rising prices, declining income
Termination from job has brought in a host of problems.
Rajni, who lives in Swarup Nagar with husband and three daughters, explained, “We are facing many problems after termination. Some of those sacked are working in a factory for their livelihood. We have also cut our expenses.”
She said that while the government wants to improve quality of life for children, it is not concerned about those responsible for implementing its schemes.
“There is corruption and irregularities in our department. A scheme was launched earlier also but nothing was done for improvement in the situation of Anganwadi workers.”
The axed Anganwadi workers are not giving in yet.
“Our fight continues. We have filed a case in the Delhi High Court and have obtained a stay against replacement in our jobs. Our argument has been completed, now it is the turn of the government.”
The next hearing is on July 10.
“We are dependent on the decision of the court and will follow it.”
Rajni, who has been working in the Alipur project of Anganwadi for 12 years, said that though their efforts are bearing fruit and some of these workers are being reinstated, the conditions laid down for them to join are exploitative.
“They have started bringing back some of the terminated Anganwadi workers. However, they have laid down strict conditions. Firstly, past experience will not count. Secondly, they have been asked to never go on strike or even participate in protest. The employees are being forced to sign on a letter. But we will not do it. Maan samman ki hi to ladaai hai (The fight is for honour only). We want honour and if we join, then we also want to be repaid the salaries lost due to termination.”
Uncertainty in lives
Sunita Kaushik, who has worked as an Anganwadi worker since 1994 and was posted at Anand Parbat, is also one of the 884 people terminated. She has a similar story to tell.
“The demands of Anganwadi workers were neither fulfilled earlier nor is there any chance of them being fulfilled in future. They only show us in posters and ads (to promote themselves) but there is nothing positive in reality, sab bakwaas (all rubbish).”
Sunita points out at uncertainty in the lives of Anganwadi workers especially after the government decided to reduce the retirement age by one year.
“The retirement age of Anganwadi worker was recently reduced by one year. An Anganwadi worker who spends her full life here, doesn’t get any facility or perks such as pension or social or medical support after retirement.”
Compounding the problems is delay in the payment of salaries. And even though, the government has announced some measures in the past, Sunita says that they are not being implemented.
“They make schemes for us only on papers, we do not get benefits. A slave’s life is better than ours. They have placed heavy workload on us.”
Poonam Rani, who is in the Mehrauli project of Anganwadi told Patriot, “We went on strike for 50 days in 2017. They raised the salary to Rs 9,600 under pressure. In these times of inflation, even this amount is not enough. Prices are rising, so we had to go on strike again.”
Poonam said that they returned to work on March 10 following the strike.
“But they terminated us on March 13 in revenge. Now, I depend on my husband’s salary, who is in a private job.”
The job is tough and requires a lot of attention, according to the Anganwadi workers.
Elaborating on the workload, Sunita said, “Our salary is not commensurate with our workload. We maintain 18 types of registers. Pregnancy to other relative issues, baby vaccine, survey of cattle to humans, ration distribution all comes under Anganwadi. The higher officials were involved in corruption of crores of rupees on the scheme of phone distribution to Anganwadi workers.”
No option left
Chandni, who has been working as an Anganwadi worker since 2009 in Karawal Nagar, with the Sonia Vihar project has also been out of job since March 2022 when she was terminated.
She said, “I started working in Anganwadi at 22. I had more opportunities too at that time. But I chose this.”
Having spent years in Anganwadi and gained experience, she now has very limited options.
“They have terminated my job at a time when I have no other scope. They alleged, at the time of termination, that I had provoked the workers, vandalised property and halted and disturbed the service. The judges also agree that protesting for demands is our constitutional right.”
Chandni claimed that those who have been asked to work in their place as replacement are also being exploited.
“After we were terminated, our work was done by other Anganwadi workers. They had to do double the work – their own and ours. In return, they were paid just Rs 200 extra. They are also disturbed but cannot say anything due to fear of termination. The condition of Anganwadi workers is very bad overall.”
Chandni claimed that the offer letters of rejoining work are accompanied by a threat.
“They are now sending letters and calling us to rejoin Anganwadi. I have also received a call for rejoining, but with some conditions and a threat that if I don’t join by a certain date, I will never be taken in.”
Patriot spoke to a supervisor, Manjubala, regarding the notice. She tried to duck the question initially before denying knowledge of a letter of threat.
“I haven’t seen this kind of letter. This is not under the supervisor. We only follow orders from the headquarters. You should talk to headquarters for further queries. The matter is sub-judice. We will follow the judgment of the court.”
Shivani, the DSAWHU president, told Patriot, “Pre-formal education of those under six years have been given by Anganwadi for a long time. Distribution of nutrition to pregnant women or babies is also done by Anganwadi already. The new scheme is nothing but a cover to hide failures and add to the workload. The Delhi and central governments do not want to give them their rights. Budget is getting slashed and the quality and quantity of child poshan (nutrition) has decreased. The government should convert Anganwadi workers into government employees. Instead, they are creating new problems for them. There is no difference between the state or central governments on the issue of Anganwadi workers.”
Shivani said that the Covid pandemic exposed government’s apathy towards them.
“The government did not even provide any safety equipment such as sanitiser, mask among others to Anganwadi workers during Covid. Many people lost their lives too. There are around 2.8 million Anganwadi workers in the country and if we count other workforce such as Asha, the total would reach one crore. We are not happy with the government and will organise a big protest against the government before the 2024 elections.”