'Taken for Granted and Ignored', Anganwadi Workers Demand Better Pay, Conditions

“Why do we not deserve to be called government employees? We work very hard and fulfil all our responsibilities and duties on time.”

New Delhi: Around 11:45 am, Pushpa* sat down on the floor of her anganwadi centre with a bunch of registers. She and her helper had spent two hours playing with children and teaching them rhymes. The children and nursing mothers had just left after taking their lunch from the centre. “Our work does not get over till we update all these registers. Our supervisor drops in often to check these,” she says.

Pushpa is in her 50s and has been been working as an anganwadi worker for over 11 years. She says she decided to work at an anganwadi because she loves spending time with children and wants to do something for her community. “But we work under a lot of pressure. If anything goes wrong, the buck stops at workers and helpers. Nobody will say anything to the officials we report to,” she adds.

There are almost 28 lakh anganwadi workers and helpers working under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme launched by the Central government in 1975. Under this policy, an anganwadi worker is supposed to cater to a population of 1,000 in rural and suburban areas. In a country with the largest number of malnourished children, anganwadi centres play a crucial role by providing pre-school education and primary healthcare and nutrition to children under six years of age, nursing mothers and pregnant women.

Educational charts and poems at an anganwadi centre in New Delhi.

Fighting for better pay

Anganwadi workers and helpers from all over India joined over one lakh farmers and workers to march from Ramlila Maidan to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on September 5, 2018. The sea of people holding red flags walked the distance of almost three km, calling for the Centre’s attention to their demands.

One of their demands was a minimum wage of Rs 18,000. “What we are presently paid is almost nothing. We work because we need to earn. How does the government expect us to feed our families on the meagre honorarium we get?” asks Vidya Khagar, an anganwadi worker who had come from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, to take part in the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh rally organised by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and other outfits affiliated to the Communist party of India (Marxist).

What the anganwadi workers and helpers earn is hardly enough to provide adequate nutrition to their own children. They are given a fixed amount as honorarium per month under the scheme, which varies in each state. Many states have seen an increase in the honorarium in recent years following protests and demonstrations by the workers. While in Madhya Pradesh the workers and helpers earn Rs 10,000 and Rs 5,000 a month respectively, Karnataka gives Rs 8,000 to the workers and Rs 4,000 to the helpers. According to Usha Rani, president of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, Telangana gives its workers and helpers Rs 10,500 and Rs 7,000 respectively and Haryana gives Rs 11,429 to its workers, twice the amount that is given to helpers.

Beneficiaries gather outside an Anganwadi centre to collect their food. Credit: Manira Chaudhary

In Delhi too, in 2017, the Arvind Kejriwal government almost doubled the honorarium to workers and helpers from Rs 5,000 and Rs 2,500 respectively, but that move also came after thousands of women staged a sit-in protest in front of the chief minister’s residence for almost two months under the leadership of the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers’ Union.

On August 25, the Hindu reported that the government would soon hike the honorarium following a proposal from the Ministry of Women and Child Development, but the report did not mention the new amount. “We spoke to the women and child development ministry. They said they had no such information and have nothing to do with the published report,” Usha Rani told The Wire.

Inadequate income is not the only concern. “We don’t get the amount on time. We usually get it after the 20th of every month. In fact, our salaries of two months are still pending,” said Divya*, who has been running an anganwadi centre in Sangam Vihar in Delhi for over 20 years. The months-long delay is a common problem across many states. Earlier this year, over 3,000 anganwadi workers and helpers went on a strike in Jammu and Kashmir demanding an increase in their honorarium and release of their pending salaries. “We often complain to our supervisor but nothing happens. She says it’s in the hands of the CDPO (Child Development Project Officer) madam,” says Vaishali Jha*, another worker from the Sangam Vihar project.

A meeting of anganwadi workers at Sangam Vihar, Delhi. Credit: Manira Chaudhary

The Wire met with the CDPO of Sangam Vihar, Hoor Jehan, who refused  to comment and said she does not have permission to talk to the media.

Social workers, not employees

“Why do we not deserve to be called government employees? We work very hard and fulfil all our responsibilities and duties on time,” said a group of anganwadi workers from Punjab. Under the ICDS scheme, anganwadi workers and helpers are seen as voluntary social workers and not karamcharis. This understanding also becomes more evident by the terminologies used – workers and helpers are called sevika and sahayika. Their work not being regularised also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and  deprives them of essential benefits like Provident Fund, pension and ESI (Employees’ State Insurance) cards.

Though the website of the Ministry of Women and Child Development enlists provisions for insurance and maternity leave for anganwadi workers, women complain that none of those have been implemented yet and they have never been informed of such provisions. “A part of our work is referring women and children to hospitals while we ourselves get no such benefits,” said Usha Rani.

Children at an anganwadi centre in New Delhi. Credit: Manira Chaudhary

Most of the anganwadi workers complain of being overburdened with other tasks such as BLO (Booth Level Officer) duties, surveys etc. “We already have so much work. We have to maintain anywhere between 14 and 17 registers on a daily basis like those of attendance, daily diary, weight, vaccinations and conduct regular home visits. We have to be answerable for every single thing. On top of that, we are asked to take part in all kinds of surveys and other duties which do not come under ICDS.

“Many years ago, anganwadi workers and helpers were even made to conduct a survey of the presence of stray dogs and cats,” said Poonam Rani, an anganwadi worker from Arjangarh in South Delhi. While some workers from Delhi said that partaking in such surveys is optional, workers from states like Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka said their supervisors made it mandatory for them. However, according to the ICDS scheme, the workers and helpers are supposed to provide only six services of supplementary nutrition, pre-school non-formal education, nutrition and health education, immunisation, health check-up and referral services.

For all the extra work they are asked to do, anganwadi workers say they are hardly paid enough. “We are all from poor backgrounds. That is why we have taken up this work. We are dependent on this money to raise our families. They give us all kinds of work but do not pay us accordingly,” said Lakshmi Talwar, an anganwadi worker from Belagavi, Karnataka.

Anganwadi workers from Karnataka at Ramlila Maidan, Delhi. Credit: Manira Chaudhary

Many Anganwadi workers also complain about lack of enough material and funds which are required to run the centres. A group of anganwadi workers from Andhra Pradesh said they even contribute money from their honorarium every month to pay for the rent of their anganwadi centres. Vaishali Jha from Delhi told The Wire that many workers often have to pay from their own pockets to buy charts, toys and other stationery items.

Some of them also spend their money to buy snacks and candy for children. “The same food is supplied to us every single day, which is mostly of bad quality. Many people throw away the food after taking it from the centre. It is not their fault. How can anyone eat the same thing day after day? So I buy some candies and biscuits from my own pocket to distribute among the children,” says Pushpa*, while struggling with an old weighing machine as she tried to measure the weight of a toddler whose mother had just brought her in.

Fresh burden

A recent change in the attendance system has added a new pressure on the workers. Many states like Delhi and Madhya Pradesh now require the workers to mark their attendance every morning by sending live locations and photographs on WhatsApp groups managed by their supervisors. Those who do not have smartphones are either asked to buy one or to use a neighbour’s phone. “Last year the Kejriwal government promised that we will also get mobile/internet charges but we have not received it even once. Moreover, our phones have started malfunctioning because of overuse. We can’t even delete the pictures because we don’t know when we will be asked to share them as proof,” rued Pushpa.

“The nature of work is voluntary social service. The government is running away from its responsibility of treating these women as regular employees because of which women are losing out on so many things,” says Shivani Kaul, president of the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers’ Union. “The government employs women from the most deprived sections of the society for this scheme and the entire system considers women as the cheapest source of labour. Be it in domestic work or the caregiving sector, women are taken for granted everywhere,” Kaul added.

Questions regarding the workers’ demands and their concerns with respect to their wages and social benefits were sent to the Ministry of Women and Child Development but no responses were received at the time of publishing this story.

Food being distributed at an anganwadi centre in New Delhi. Credit: Manira Chaudhary

Regularisation and dignity

“Regardless of the party in power, the government, since 1991, has been trying to involve private players in social welfare schemes and step away from its responsibilities and this attitude is affecting the workers severely. ICDS is a central government scheme and the Centre should take full responsibility,” Kamala, general secretary of Delhi anganwadi workers and helpers affiliated with CITU told The Wire.

According to Kamala and Kaul, ICDS should be made into a separate department which will open the doors to the regularisation of anganwadi workers. “Until the workers are given the status of employees, they should at least be given a minimum wage.” Kamala added.

While the anganwadi workers become associated with different unions to raise their demands, they know it comes with a cost. “Many workers from our district were not allowed to come for this rally,” Khagar from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh told The Wire. “They were threatened that their services will be terminated.” An anganwadi worker from Delhi on condition of anonymity told The Wire that she was unfairly terminated after a picture of hers from the 2017 strike reached the authorities. It was only after many workers came out in her support and her past performance was evaluated that she was reinstated.

“Nobody cares about us. Neither do we get any facilities or respect. We are taken for granted and ignored when we go to any government department for some work. No other department can provide such service or such accurate details about the community as we can, but still the government thinks that we do not do much,” said Pushpa, while wrapping up her registers and putting them back in their place.

*Names have been changed on request.

Manira Chaudhary is an independent multimedia journalist working in New Delhi. She tweets at @ManiraChaudhary.