Anganwadi workers and helpers play a significant role in facilitating child nutrition at the ground level. They also function as a bridge between the government and targeted beneficiaries in delivering various services under the National Food Security Act, 2013.
In the last few years, anganwadi workers have taken to the streets to demand their rights. They are caregivers engaged indirectly in the healthcare sector without being given a civil post. Deprived of a regular salary and other related benefits that are available to State employees, they are paid honorariums much lower than the minimum wages, on the specious ground that they are part-time, volunteer workers. Often, they do not receive their honorariums on time. All this leads to their exploitation.
To understand their demands and how society benefits from them, The Leaflet spoke with Shivani Kaul, the President of the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union (DSAWHU). The DSAWHU has been at the forefront of the strikes organised in the recent past. Their demands include the need to regularise the employment of anganwadi workers.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
Q: Can you tell us about yourself?
A: My name is Shivani Kaul and I am a political activist. I am associated with a workers’ group called Bigul Mazdoor Dasta. We have a workers’ monthly newspaper called Mazdoor Bigul. I have been a part of this organisation since 2006.
Q:How are you associated with the DSAWHU?
A:The DSAWHU came into existence in 2015. My association with the DSAWHU began when we witnessed anganwadi workers protesting outside the residence of the Chief Minister of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal. We interacted with them and got to know that the workers have not been paid an honorarium for eight months.
Further, we got to know that they were considered ‘volunteers’ and not recognised as employees, and thus, they are not paid wages. The workers told us that the Centre of Indian Trade Unions-affiliated unions claimed to be representatives of anganwadi workers, but they were not helping them.
A: The protest continued. I started visiting the protest site frequently. In 2015, we went on a 32-day-long strike. Kejriwal called a delegation to know our demands. I was a part of that delegation. The Chief Minister agreed to our demands and signed the memorandum. Resultantly, we called off the strike.
Q: What were your demands?
A: We were asking for a doubling of the honorarium. The workers were paid around Rs. 5,000 and the helpers were paid Rs. 2,500. This is not fixed, because they were told they will be given some remuneration for their phone bills.
There were other demands as well. We wanted the workers to be recognised as regular employees. But we did not emphasise that because we acknowledge that there is a limitation to the exercise of powers under a central scheme. They remain a part of our long term demands.
Q: Can you explain the scheme to us and what these anganwadi workers do?
A: Anganwadi workers are employed under the Integrated Child Development Scheme of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. It is a pan-India social scheme, and represents a unique programme for early childhood care and development.
Anganwadi workers are caregivers, and in politico-economic terms, they are recognised as reproductive labourers. Their daily tasks include providing supplementary nutritional food for children from the age group of six months to six years, and to expectant and nursing mothers. They also assist the primary healthcare staff in the implementation of immunisation programmes.
In anganwadi centres, the activity of running a preschool for the children in the age group of three to six years is being conducted in accordance with Section 11 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act, 2009.
Q: Were your demands met? If not, then what did you do?
A: Unfortunately, none of our demands were fulfilled. We then organised another strike in 2017. It took us two years to do that. This was a 58 day-long strike.
By then, the Chief Minister knew that he could not engage with the union. He did not, even once, call our delegation. In the course of the strike, they informed us that they have already spoken to the unions who claimed to represent the Anganwadi workers. These were fraudulent unions.
Subsequently, we asked them to come up with a Gazette notification stating that our demands would be fulfilled. This was the only way to get some official assurance from the government. They realised that the strike was going strong and we did not have any intention to call it off. So, they finally came up with a Gazette notification in August in which they doubled the honorarium.
Q: I see that there was another strike last year. Why is that, since your demands have been met?
A: The third strike happened in January last year. By far, this was the strongest of our strikes. There were many concerns. For instance, the State does not provide them with the space to engage in their work. The workers have to find the place themselves because anganwadi centres are not considered permanent establishments. Still, they expect the workers to serve quality food and impart primary education. I feel that they are underqualified and they do need training to perform certain tasks. But the State is not willing to spend enough on that.
Further, a lot is spent on food, at least on paper; in reality, pregnant women are given bland food. The Uttar Pradesh government is not serving eggs to women and children. The latter are not getting the nutrition that they deserve. This is also one of the demands we have raised.
Moreover, I believe that the state governments intentionally recruits the most vulnerable section of the women population. These women are either single or divorced, and feel that the State is giving them social security. But that is not the case. They are engaged because they will not question the government.
I have been a part of working-class movements for the last fifteen years, but this strike was something new. It created a political consciousness amongst the workers. It put in the dock the whole capitalist system that benefits from these workers. You may argue that it does not benefit directly because anganwadi workers may not be directly engaged in the health system. But they are still highly exploited.
Including all the incentives, the workers now receive around Rs. 13,000 and the helpers receive Rs. 9,000. But that’s on paper, because they are not receiving this amount. It is because the amount they receive is based on the share of both the Union and the respective state governments. Sometimes, the Union Government does not release the funds and sometimes, there is a lack on the state’s part. So, the workers and helpers never received this sum.
Q: What happened then?
A: The State became repressive and imposed the Haryana Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1974 on the strike a day after we celebrated International Women’s Day. This draconian legislation gives wide power to the government to prohibit strike. We were forced to suspend the strike.
We challenged this order before the Delhi High Court because they imposed this legislation on us when anganwadi workers are not even considered as essential workers.
Meanwhile, thirty women were given show cause notices, and their engagement was terminated during the strike. Once we completely suspended the strike, we got to know that more than 1,000 women workers were terminated.
The writ petition we filed before the high court is being argued by senior advocate Colin Gonsalves. During the hearing, when the court asked how many terminations were made, the State said that it was around 991. Later, it said that around 844 received termination. It gave 11,498 show cause notices. It was preparing to terminate these many women workers.
The high court put a stay on the termination and recruitment. It was an act of vengeance on the part of the government authorities.
It was a significant judgment and we consider it as a good precedent.
Q: Lastly, do you see a future of this struggle?
A: Yes, I do. In the last three strikes, we have seen that our struggles are being recognised by different sections of the society. We see the struggles of anganwadi workers as a part of the larger working class movement.