Anganwadi workers express their angst
For years, pleas of the Delhi anganwadi workers for better working conditions have fallen on deaf ears. The women have now gathered outside Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s house to protest indefinitely for better pay and full-time employment status.
Lalita, one of the protesting anganwadi workers could be distinctly heard shouting the slogan: ‘Kejriwal ki khol di pol, mehengai pe halla bol’ (Expose Kejriwal, protest against inflation). Her rage could be judged by the way she was sloganeering against the Delhi Government. Lalita was not alone, thousands of women from across the capital were there to support each other for their common cause.
It’s an awkward time for Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to be directly attacked at this time, as he is campaigning in states going in for Assembly polls touting the ‘Delhi model’. Simultaneously, this is precisely the right time for anganwadi workers to take to the streets, as the third Covid wave is on the decline and they want to name and shame the CM for neglecting their rights and demands.
For a week, thousands of anganwadi workers and helpers protested in front of the CM’s Kejriwal residence. The protestors wore red shawls to symbolise their sisterhood. This protest is led by Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union, with their base in front of Vikas Bhawan.
Their main demand is a substantial salary increase. Currently, anganwadi workers in Delhi receive a monthly honorarium of around Rs 9,600 and helpers receive around Rs 4,800. We asked Lalita, who has been working as an anganwadi worker for the last ten years, about how this low income is affecting her. Displaying an awareness of her role in the system, she replies, “We anganwadi workers lay a strong foundation for the health system. We come under the Ministry of Women and Child Development. But unfortunately, there is no development for us – the women in anganwadis. With this little income, it is hard for us to earn the respect of society as well as our family. I am a postgraduate in Social Work and I have not received any promotion in the last ten years.Our salary is too little for us to be able to afford good clothes”.
The entire corpus of 22,000 workers and helpers employed across the capital are now demanding an increase of remuneration to Rs 25,000 per month for anganwadi workers and Rs 20,000 for helpers. In 2017, after a continuous strike for 58 days and a hunger strike for five days, their honorarium was increased from Rs 5,000 to Rs 9,600 and from Rs 2,500 to Rs 4,800 for workers and helpers respectively.
Legally speaking, the problem seems to be that anganwadi workers and helpers are not considered government employees. Their work comes under the Integrated Child Development Scheme and they are paid an honorarium, not a salary. That’s why they are considered ‘volunteers’, depriving them of any employee status and associated benefits. Their main task is to take care of nutrition and pre-formal education.
Anganwadi workers around the nation were lauded for their endeavour and hard work on the ground to control the spread of Covid-19. However, according to protesters, there is no robust healthcare system to protect them amid health emergencies. “Masks, PPE, sanitisers and other basic facilities were not provided to us amid this pandemic. At such a time, how can we think that this government will provide us good healthcare service?”, asked Lalita.
Anganwadi workers and helpers are also complaining of increased work pressure and hectic schedules, which is putting a severe strain on their work-life balance and morale. An anganwadi worker told Patriot that they were getting paid a very little amount with double the work. “Suppose an anganwadi worker goes on a long leave. In this scenario, her work is given to us. But you can’t imagine what we are paid for the extra work – we are paid Rs 200 only. This is how they are make a mockery of our hard work”, said Shivani, a worker from the Burari Project.
Several anganwadi workers also complained of over-exploitation. Savita, who is working as a helper for the last 17 years, narrated her story. She is asked to work for more than nine hours a day to provide food for her family.
“We receive calls at midnight and our supervisor asks for a meeting at odd hours. Above all, we are now also asked to deliver rations. A bag full of ration weights around 10-15 kg and many of my sisters are more than 40-50 years of age. After all this exploitation, what we receive as an honorarium is nothing compared to our expenses”.
Sumitra, an anganwadi worker, has a different story to narrate. In 2019, Delhi Government gave smartphones to the workers and replaced manual work with digital technology which soon became a nuisance for many workers. The anganwadi workers were registered on the Poshan app which was developed to track data related to child nutrition and other services provided by Anganwadi.
According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s website, “One of the major activities under the POSHAN Abhiyaan is to leverage technology for monitoring, and improved service delivery for beneficiaries including Pregnant Women, Lactating Mothers and Children (0-6 years). In this direction, a robust ICT platform namely, ‘Poshan Tracker’ has been developed by this Ministry to ensure real time monitoring of provisioning supplementary nutrition for improving nutritional status of beneficiaries, and providing real time information for prompt supervisions and management of services.” However, the app failed to achieve its intended purpose.
Complaining about the smartphone and the Poshan app, Sumitra said, “Kejriwal gave us these smartphones. Do you know how long a smartphone can survive? These phones have now become old and slow. First, it was CommCare, now we use the Poshan app. The application is slow and full of glitches. It is frustrating to wait a whole day to see this app while working under the pressure from our seniors. I can’t tell you how we manage our daily life with this stress. I have a family of six members. My mother-in-law and father-in-law are both unwell. In this situation, I have to look after my family and work. Sometimes I work for 12-17 hours a day because of this app”.
Helpers are called the backbone of the ground healthcare system and they are the most vulnerable. Many women, who are working as Anganwadi helpers, are paid less than the daily wage labour which makes it hard for them to manage their daily expenses, especially amid growing inflation.
Manisha, who is working as a helper for the last 11 years, had joined the department in 2011 and was paid a monthly honorarium of Rs. 1200. When we asked her how she is managing with this little income, she said “I have sold all my ornaments for the treatment of my mother-in-law. My husband met with an accident and it shook me to the core. He is bedridden for two years now. With no savings, I had to take a private loan for his treatment. I am the only breadwinner of my five-member family. One of my sons had left school because of financial stress, but my other son is graduating. I want to see him stand on his own feet. I cannot forget the time when I was selling tea after anganwadi hours to support my family. We are not only paid less, but we are also paid late. At times our honorarium is credited after a gap of 24-25 days”.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is campaigning for the party in Punjab and focusing on winning the votes of the women. To appease them, he has promised that every month, every woman of the state will get Rs 1,000 if the Aam Aadmi Party is voted to power.
“We women don’t want anything for free, we request our CM to increase our honorarium. We do not want free bus rides, electricity or water. What we want is self-respect, which we will get when we become financially stable,” said a helper.
Many workers and helpers have also accused the Delhi Government of sabotaging their protest. “When we were traveling to Civil Lines for the protest in morning, the bus drivers were not stopping. The buses were there watching the women holding red flags”, said one of the workers.
Anita and her mother Jaivati are both helpers. Anita wasn’t married when she joined anganwadi in 2007. In 2013, she got married, but unfortunately, her husband passed away in 2018. Following this tragedy, she took a break and rejoined in 2018 – now as a single mother with two kids.
“I pleaded with my officers to promote me and told them my story. It is very hard for me to handle my family as a single mother with this small sum of money. But they refused my request saying I have a gap in my years of service. I am the sole earner in this family. I have to pay rent, school fees and buy other necessities for the family. It is hard to manage the expenses with this small amount. Now, I have started taking private loans to run the circle”, said Anita.
Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union has planned to send a team of ten women to poll-bound states like Punjab and Goa to campaign against the Aam Aadmi Party. For this, they will seek help from local anganwadi unions. They are also planning to dent Delhi Government and other political parties in the coming MCD elections.
While talking with Patriot, President of Delhi State Anganwadi and Helpers Union Shivani said, “Our first demand is to increase the honorarium, and our second demand is to get an increase of Rs 1,500 and Rs 750 in the monthly honorarium for workers and helpers respectively, as promised by the Prime Minister in October 2018. Unfortunately, it’s been three years since we got anything from the state government or the central government. Now, we are asking for an increase as well as the arrears due for the last three years. Our other main demand is to achieve employee status. Many of my sisters have been working for decades, but today too, they are treated as only volunteers, which deprives them of insurance, ESIC and other benefits”.
We asked her if any peace talks were going on between them and the department, and how this strike has affected the work of the department. She said, “Many of the workers are receiving messages of mass termination by the department, from this you can understand the department’s stance”. She went on to call this an exploitation of cheap women labour. “We will stand for the rights of the downtrodden section of the society”, she stated.
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Anmol Nath Bali
Anmol covers education, civic and general news for Patriot.