New Delhi: A sea of red flags rises up along Flagstaff Road in north Delhi’s Civil Lines area, just a few metres from the home of chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. The Capital’s Anganwadi workers and helpers, who are an integral part of India’s community healthcare workforce, have been sitting here in protest since January 31, 2022.
“We are being treated as bonded labour by the government. They keep expanding the scope of our duties without paying us commensurate wages,” said Lalita Sharma, who has been an Anganwadi worker for 16 years.
Why are Delhi’s Anganwadi workers and helpers aggrieved? The reasons are complex. Anganwadi workers (AWW), all of them women, are part of India’s large community health workforce that is key to the implementation of its maternal and child welfare programmes. But they are also charged with an array of assignments ranging from election duty to pandemic relief work. Anganwadi helpers open and clean the centres, prepare hot cooked meals, bring children and women to the centres, fetch water, and assist the AWWs.
Despite this massive basket of critical responsibilities, Anganwadi workers are listed as “volunteers” and paid an “honorarium”. A worker could put in decades of work and still remain overworked, dispensable and poorly paid.
The striking workers are demanding that they be paid better wages, their work be regularised and that they be recognised as government employees with all the benefits the role brings. There are no signs yet of any dialogues between them and the government and the strike has been intensifying over the last couple of weeks. The Delhi government on February 23 threatened some of the protesting workers with disciplinary action if they did not rejoin duty.
“These orders are just intimidatory tactics to prevent the workers from protesting. But we are not scared. We are only asking for our rights,” said Santosh*, who has well over a decade of experience as an Anganwadi worker.
On February 25, the protestors gherao-ed the office of the Department of Women and Child Development (WCD) at Kashmere Gate, where they launched an indefinite 24 hour strike.
कल 26 फ़रवरी को भी दिल्ली की आँगनवाड़ीकर्मियों की हड़ताल जारी रही। कल हड़ताल का 27वाँ दिन था। कश्मीरी गेट स्थित महिला एवं बाल विकास विभाग (WCD) का घेराव करने के बाद से यहाँ पर भी धरना लगातार जारी है। इसके साथ ही हर रोज की तरह सिविल लाइंस पर भी हड़ताल जारी रही। #Anganwadi pic.twitter.com/4SqTcZq3nF— DSAWHU (@dsawhu) February 26, 2022
On March 6, some of the strikers along with Shivani Kaul, the president of the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union that is helming the agitation, gheraoed the chief minister’s Kejriwal’s residence and announced a hunger strike demanding that an FIR be filed against the Joint Director of WCD, Navlendra Kumar Singh, for allegedly using objectionable language against them. “This officer directly said that the workers who are actively participating in the strike should be beheaded. The hunger strike of Anganwadi workers at Kejriwal’s residence will continue till an FIR is registered against the officer,” said Kaul in a statement released by the union.
The workers are in no mood to relent either. “We will continue the strike till the time our demands are met,” said Rajni Saini, a district court lawyer who has also been doing Anganwadi work since 2009 to supplement her income.
Anganwadi workers have a large number of tasks assigned to them – organising non-formal pre-school activities, monitoring the health of children, pregnant women and lactating mothers, conducting regular surveys, providing and assisting immunisation services, facilitating applications for official documents and identity cards, and raising awareness within the community around social issues.
We spoke to many of the protestors who were rallying under the banner of Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union (DSAWHU) and they all pointed to the insufficiency of their remuneration. The current honorarium for Anganwadi workers and helpers, last increased by the Delhi government in August 2017 after 58 days of strike, is Rs 9,678 and Rs 4,839 respectively.
Kesar*, 55, has been working as an Anganwadi helper for 25 years and she is protesting too because she believes she has not been rewarded for her work. “I’m due to retire in 5 years but I know I have no future,” she said, as others sitting beside her nodded in agreement. “I joined Anganwadi 25 years ago for Rs 250 a month. Today I earn Rs 4,839 a month and even that is not paid to us on time. Are these fair wages especially if I have to pay medical bills?”
One of the key demands now is that the money be increased to Rs 25,000 for the workers and to Rs 20,000 to the helpers considering “inflation and increase in workload”. On February 24, the Minister for Social Welfare, Rajendra Pal Gautam, announced that the Delhi government would increase the honorarium for Anganwadi workers and helpers to Rs 12,720 and Rs 6,810 respectively. This includes Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,200 as conveyance and communication allowance for workers and helpers respectively, stated Gautam.
This offer was rejected by DSAWHU. “We are rejecting this offer because the announced increment is like alms that the department is giving us. These are not the dues that we rightfully deserve,” said Kaulof DSAWHU. “The government has not even talked to or negotiated with DSAWHU, the legitimate trade union that represents the thousands of protesting women workers.”
In 2017, the AAP-led Delhi government had promised to add Rs 500 and Rs 250 respectively to the remuneration of Anganwadi workers and helpers as mobile/internet allowance. However, the workers claim, this was later reduced to Rs 200 and has never even been paid. Behanbox has written to the minister and joint director, WCD seeking a response to these allegations. This story will be updated when we receive a response.
The Centre had revised the honorarium in September 2018 with a monthly increment of Rs 1,500 and Rs 750 for Anganwadi workers and helpers respectively. “This announcement, like all others made by the Modi government, proved to be a jumla,” DSAWHU’s statement read. It has yet to come into effect anywhere in India, alleged Kaul who has further demanded the immediate payment of pending arrears worth Rs 60,000 to each Anganwadi worker and Rs 30,000 to each helper.
In September 2021 too, Delhi AWWs had protested against their working conditions, delayed payments, and lack of social security benefits.
Work Profile Growing, No Acknowledgement
“Our working hours are from 9 AM to 2 PM but the truth is that we work round the clock. It is a 24×7 duty,” said Saini. Like many others, she reported that supervisors and coordinators delegate work over phone at odd hours and expect instant completion of tasks.
The workers are disgruntled about the functioning of the POSHAN tracker that is meant to monitor stunting, wasting and subnormal weight among children and also track the delivery of nutrition services. Rolled out in March 2021 and described as a job-aid for AWWs, it rarely ever works, the workers complained.
“We have to wait until after 9 PM at night for the app to work. Sometimes it works only after midnight. That is when our superiors ask us to work,” said Tara (35), an AWW who works in north-east Delhi’s Anand Parbat area.
Workers said that far from easing their work, the app has doubled it. “We have to maintain multiple registers in addition to entering data on this app because it seldom works,” said Manju, an AWW.
In March, 2021, the Delhi government added the task of running training centres under Saheli Samanvay Yojana (SSY), a programme for upskilling young girls and incubating their start-up ideas. The workers have refused to participate in the programme that will primarily be run at 21 Anganwadi centres.
SSY requires workers to remain at the training centres until 4 PM. “It is an increase in our workload as well as our working hours. The government has not even offered to pay us for this,” said Lalita Sharma, who has been working at one of the SSY centres for the last few months.
The workers are also aggrieved that they are being asked to share information about their movements with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). “These NGOs are being used as surveillance mechanisms by the government. Not only are AWWs answerable to their supervisors and coordinators, but have to constantly share their GPS location every half an hour with the NGOs,” said Kaul.
The quantum of work for these women workers has especially increased since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020: a 10-state study conducted by Behanbox on the role of female frontline workers during COVID-19 found that their daily work hours had increased from the usual 6-8 hours to 12-15 hours. The workers were deputed to spread awareness about the virus and conduct contact-tracing and syndromic surveys often without any safety equipment.
“Not only were we doing the surveys but were also providing Anganwadi services to beneficiaries at their doorsteps,” said Kusum Yadav, an AWW for 11 years. “We have not received any incentive for our COVID-19 duties.”
Workers alleged that during the pandemic they had to distribute rations from sacks weighing over 100 kg among beneficiaries under the supplementary nutrition component of ICDS on a daily basis. “We have to finish the ration distribution within a day irrespective of the number of home-visits, hours and kilometres it takes for us to cover all beneficiaries,” said Yadav.
“Sometimes I have to climb up four storeys with an 80-kg sack on my back to deliver the ration to a beneficiary. As a result, I have developed a chronic backache,” alleged an Anganwadi worker, who wished not to be identified.
Demand For Benefits, Promotion
Since Anganwadi work is considered voluntary, workers and helpers are not considered employees. As a result they are not entitled to any employment benefits including social safety nets such as pension or insurance. One of the demands of the striking workers is that both the Centre and the Delhi government recognise them as government employees.
“We collect and maintain various kinds of data for the government whether it is on pregnant and lactating mothers, or on malnutrition. All supervising officers to whom we submit this data are salaried government employees. Then why are we only given an honorarium and considered voluntary workers?” asked Saini. Kaul added that all benefits due to any government employee such as Employee State Insurance (ESI), Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), and other retirement benefits should be given to Anganwadi workers and helpers.
In 2015, the then Union Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Sanjay Gandhi had announced new guidelines as per which Anganwadi workers with over 10 years of experience and with a graduate degree could be promoted as supervisors to fill 50% of such vacancies.
However, BehanBox spoke to at least seven Anganwadi workers who fulfilled the criteria but had not been promoted.
While many women joined as Anganwadi workers because they had no other option, others made a conscious decision to take on the tasks. “I have been trying since 2018, but have not qualified even once,” said Saini, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in both Commerce and legislative law and also a Master’s in Social Work.
Married at the age of 18, Saini was encouraged to pursue higher education by her husband. In the meanwhile she joined Anganwadi to supplement her husband’s earnings. Even after completing her studies and clearing the All India Bar Examination to start a practice, she decided to continue working in an Anganwadi. “It is additional income after all,” she said.
Sunita Daggar, an Anganwadi worker for 13 years, holds a bachelor’s as well as master’s degree in social work. She lives with a disability, is a single mother and joined Anganwadi services to earn a living after her husband went missing. “Once I joined Anganwadi, I thought I would be able to make a career of it, get various allowances, incentives and promotions. However, let alone allowances, we are not even paid our honorariums on time,” she said. “They hire freshers who have no knowledge of the field and the work. In fact, we are the ones who train them.”
Some workers like Lakshmi joined the Anganwadi system because they wanted to engage with community work. “I hold a postgraduate degree in social work. I joined Anganwadi thinking that I could earn some money while serving the society. However, over the last 16 years I have learnt how Anganwadi workers’ and helpers’ labour is exploited,” she told Behanbox.
Workers are also infuriated at the show-cause notice issued to 30 Anganwadi workers and helpers for “disruptive actions”. “It further states that if the women fail to respond within the three-day notice period they will face the risk of termination. The union and its workers have drafted a response with the help of our lawyer and refuse to be threatened by such arm-twisting,” said Vrishali Shruti, spokesperson of DSAWHU.
On February 28, Anganwadi workers and helpers of certain projects were given memos for being absent from work. It said that those who do not resume work will face “grave consequences”.
The use of these ‘scare-tactics’ is not new for the WCD department, said workers and helpers. “They regularly threaten us with show-cause notices and memos to make us work beyond our working hours,” said Tara.
Some workers choose to attend protests without letting their coordinators and supervisors know, said Yadav. “They come to the protest site after the working hours to avoid getting in trouble with the supervisors.”
(*Many of the protestors we spoke with wished to be identified only by their first name.)