Why The Digital Dream Soured Quickly For Anganwadi Workers

Anganwadi workers says their role has gone from deliverers of schemes to being data collectors for the government

Rina Goswami was staring intently at her smartphone screen at the Anganwadi centre in the South Dinajpur district of West Bengal. “My fingers have gone numb. The boxes don’t click in one go,” she said in frustration.

Goswami is one of India’s 1.35 million registered Anganwadi Workers (AWW) in the 1.39 million Anganwadi centres across the country whose working manual has been undergoing a radical digital transition. The Poshan Tracker app she was struggling with was introduced in the Anganwadi system by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in March 2021 as the pandemic peaked.

Goswami, like all Anganwadi workers, has to enter a huge amount of everyday data related to her work. She is not comfortable with digital technology so it takes her nearly an hour to do this.

“The status section has four subsections with 33 boxes to tick – ‘Hygiene and Safety’, ‘Food Safety and Handling’, ‘Food Safety and Handling-THR’, and ‘Records and Registers’. It is tiring,” she said. There is an additional app that West Bengal’s Anganwadi workers have to deal with – Pratyayee, used to monitor the well-being of adolescent girls and introduced as a means of monitoring trafficking.

The Poshan Tracker app has unequivocally changed the nature of the job done by Anganwadi workers – they say they have gone from being primary caretakers of pregnant women, lactating mothers and children to being the government’s data collection agents. In the last year, there have been sporadic protests across the country by Anganwadi workers demanding mobile phones, increased honorarium, gratuity, and the status of government employees. See here, here, here, here, and here

“The government said that the tracker would reduce the workload of Anganwadi workers. The workers used to maintain 20-25 manual databases, and this app was introduced on the condition that all manual work would be scrapped, and all data recorded digitally. But now along with the Poshan Tracker app, Anganwadi workers have to maintain all the data manually as well as digitally,” said AR Sindhu, general secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH).

Stretched For Time, Poorly Paid

As Behanbox has reported, Anganwadi workers are overworked and underpaid, with an array of tasks that go well beyond their original mandate.

Currently, the honorarium paid to Anganwadi workers is split in a 60:40 ratio between the Central and the state governments. The latter are free to fix the sum (here, here, here, here, and here). In West Bengal, the honorarium is Rs 8,250 a month, in Chhattisgarh the state government has increased it to Rs 10,000 and in Tamil Nadu Rs 13,452. The Haryana government pays Rs 12,661 to those with more than 10 years of experience, and Rs 11,401 to those with less. The Madhya Pradesh government recently increased the honorarium to Rs 13,000 and has also promised to hike it by Rs 1000 per year.

Anganwadi workers have been asking to be treated and paid as government employees for years now. They have been staging public protests to voice their demands (here, here).

The digital shift too is a huge irritant for Anganwadi workers. “I used to maintain 17 manual copies containing all the data that was periodically updated – the usage of food material spent every day, the state of the food stock, height and weight of the children. Before I used to weigh the children in one or two days, but in the month of June 2023, the supervisor told us that the children from now are to be weighed on the exact date of their birth every month, and updated on the app,” said Goswami.

There are other manual databases to be maintained on a child’s growth, colour-coded on the basis of their health, which decides the amount of ration to be allotted to him or her. There is also what is called the Home Visit Copy maintained on lactating and pregnant women, along with that of malnourished children. Then there is Pratyayee, as we said earlier.

“I have to update information on teenage girls after visiting their home – are they going to school, chances of early marriage, incidents of harassment they face and so on,” said Goswami. “There are also parallel forms of data entry: some that have to still be documented manually such as Daily Diary, Immunization details of women and children, and Primary Health Service referrals. Others have to be both digitally and manually entered, such as health and growth details of pregnant/lactating mothers and children, the ration dossier and special Village Health Sanitation and Nutrition Days.”

Anganwadi workers are expected to organise several Community-Based Events (CBE), like Yoga Day, Breastfeeding Month, Nutritious Food Day and send photographs of these to their supervisors.

Goswami recalled that her location, her lack of English language and digital skills are a major block in her work. “In March 2022, I started using the Poshan Tracker app, for which I had to buy a smartphone which cost me Rs 13,000. The initial days were chaotic. The applications were in the English language, a medium I did not know. I had to call my supervisor multiple times to get a grasp of the simplest of things about the app,” she said.

The mobile-based application, which is now available in 22 Indian languages, including Bengali, has a default English language setting unless changed otherwise. Goswami realised this much later when she met her supervisor.

However, for all the glitches, there can be no going back on the digital transition, said Sanghamitra Ghosh, secretary of women and child development, and social welfare department, for the state government. “There has been constant training and hand-holding of the frontline workers. The workers were provided with the data charges from the beginning, and they will receive the smartphones in a short while,” she maintained. She elaborates that the Central government has been constantly changing the specifications of the smartphone, however, the tenders are afloat, and the Anganwadi workers will be provided with phones very early.

South Dinajpur district, which is her workplace, shares approximately 252 km of the international border with Bangladesh and experiences frequent power cuts (here, here) and network problems. Although the government pays data charges, the payment is irregular. “I get something between Rs 1000 and Rs 2000 and then too after every two or three months,” Goswami said.

‘When Do We Do Our Work?’

The introduction of smartphones and digital data management arrived as something of a shock to most Anganwadi workers. In 2019, the Delhi government launched two apps that were presumed to ease the burden of data filing for frontline workers. One was similar to the Poshan Tracker and asked the worker to register the Anganwadi centres’s daily opening with a UDI-linked listing of the beneficiaries. The workers were to use it to send photographs of the children receiving daily nutrition.

Another app was for the supervisors of the ICDS scheme to help them monitor the Anganwadi centres under them and their nutritional services, especially for the malnourished ones. In June 2018, the women and child development ministry had announced the ICDS-CAS (Common Application Software) framework to “strengthen the Service Delivery System as well as the mechanism for Real Time Monitoring for nutritional outcomes”.

On October 10, 2019, the then WCD minister Smriti Irani reported that only about 500,000 Anganwadi workers were uploading data in the CAS system and the Centre wanted 500,000 more to join by March 31, 2020, and all the Anganwadis should be under the CAS dashboard by the middle of the same year. She also said that “6.28 lakh smartphones have been procured so far, and 5.01 are in the process of being purchased”.

The Karnataka State Anganwadi Workers’ Association (KSAWA) president S Varalakshmi spoke about the poor quality of the phones given to the workers in 2019 under the CAS framework. “…these phones are not in good working condition. With a limited Internet speed at 2G, the workers face problems when they upload the data”, she had said.

Additional Workload

Anganwadi workers are often assigned tasks that go well beyond their basic functions, as we said earlier. Savita Biswas, another anganwadi worker from South Dinajpur had to also work briefly for the PM’s housing scheme. “I had an operation in the area surrounding my spinal cord, so it has become very difficult for me to stand for a long period of time. But I have been given the PM Awas Yojna work along with other Anganwadi workers. This arrangement was later called off. Walking long hours and distances has become so difficult for me, I have to carry a chair for myself wherever I go,” said Biswas. Sometimes she says they are called for election duty and other planning tasks. “When are we going to do our actual work?”

The AIFAWH secretary said that the workers have written to several ministries demanding that they not be assigned non-ICDS work. For instance, the Anganwadi workers from Madhya Pradesh had even written to the Election Commission to scrap their poll duty to no effect, according to her.

This year in March, the government of Madhya Pradesh started its Mukhyamantri Ladli Behna Yojna which will provide financial support to married, divorcee, and destitute women aged between 21 and 60 years. It will provide Rs 1000 a month to women for self-reliance. However, the leadership of Anganwadi Karyakarta Evam Sahayika Union, Madhya Pradesh is demanding that the Anganwadi workers and helpers should also be made the beneficiaries.

“The government, under the Poshan Matka scheme, asked us to collect 5 quintals of food grains for the pregnant and lactating women and children below the age of 5. How can we manage five quintals a month? Is this also our work?” asked Pratiti, an Anganwadi worker from the state, who did not wish to share her second name.

Under the Ladli Behna Scheme, the beneficiaries of the scheme are asked to write out on their palms in mehendi, “Main ladli behna hun (I am a loved sister),” as they accompanied a Kalash Yatra, a procession that is supposed to raise awareness.  “Anganwadi workers were even ‘employed’ to send the stray cattles to gaushalas (cow shelter). If they refuse to participate in other programmes, they are sometimes threatened with suspension and even termination. State governments and even district administration in certain places have different apps to track nutrition and health,” said Sindhu.

Aadhar Mandatory For Nutrition Access

The ICDS scheme, conceptualised to provide basic nutrition, is now also being tailored for other requirements. In November 2021, the central government wrote to the states asking that the Aadhaar details of ICDS beneficiaries be linked to the Poshan Tracker by December 15, 2021. It said that funds would be discharged to states based on the tracker data. Later, under the Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan guidelines, it was stated that: “Beneficiaries will be Aadhaar-seeded to ensure last mile tracking.” It also said that only those beneficiaries who are registered at the Anganwadi centres and are in possession of an Aadhaar card can draw benefits of this scheme. In August 2022, a government notification stated that children can avail benefits through their mothers’ Aadhaar card. But food rights activists believe that even this would omit genuine beneficiaries.

“Feeding in Aadhaar details takes a long time sometimes because they are provided late or do not match the official document,” said Nupur Bhadra, a seasoned Anganwadi worker from North Dinajpur, West Bengal.

No Data, No Ration

Goswami, who has been working for 36 years, said she initially made so many errors in data verification she contemplated leaving her job. “Without verifying, we can not provide data on Take Home Rations, and if we can not provide data, we can not give them ration,” she said.

The data work became a 24/7 job. “Even if you are at home, if the supervisor asks for information, you have to provide it in the shortest time possible,” she said. Another worker who wished to remain anonymous said, “I had hired a young boy for Rs 500 a month to do all the online work. I am a family of five, and Rs 500 is a big thing for us.”

During the pandemic, it had been easy for the government to enforce the use of the app. The children of the migrant workers were also given ration by the workers. “In tribal areas, and hilly areas where tracking of malnutrition is so much more necessary, the Poshan Tracker has only added to grievances because of the difficulty in connectivity,” said Sindhu.

Inadequate Budget Allocation

The budget allocation for the Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 scheme (an umbrella portfolio for ICDS, Poshan Abhiyaan, and schemes for adolescent girls) was increased by 1% – from Rs 20263.07 crore in the financial year 2022-23 to Rs. 20554.31 crore in 2023-24. This is while the number of beneficiaries has increased from 94.9 million in March 2022 to 95.1 million in February 2023. Moreover, under the Poshan Abhiyaan, previously the National Nutrition Mission and now now realigned as part of Mission Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0, only 52% of the total Rs 10,111 crore allocated has been released and utilisation stands at only 66% or Rs 3,753 crore till March 31 2022.

The AIFAWH released a statement on February 1, 2023 drawing attention to the irregular supply of nutrition in many states. “The Anganwadi budget was exponentially cut. The allocation for the National Health Mission has also been reduced by Rs 375 crore from Rs 37,165 crore to Rs 36,785 crore in the 2023-24 budget. Moreover, in the budget announcement, union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced an allocation of 1,97,350 crore rupees as food subsidy for the financial year 2023-2024 compared to 2,06,831 crore rupees of the previous year; a slack of Rs 89,000 crore or over 32%.” See here.

Sitharaman, in her 2022 budget announcement, also talked about modernising 200,000 Anganwadis (40,000 each year). However, in the declaration of the budget implementation, the government said that as on date, only 35,758 Anganwadi centres across 24 states have been approved for upgradation.

Despite the stress of digitisation, the honorarium of the Anganwadi workers has not been increased by the central government since 2018. The Supreme Court, however, upheld that the Anganwadi workers and helpers are fully governed under the Payment of Gratuity Act, of 1972. In a 2022 judgement, spread across 72 pages, it said that the Anganwadi workers come under the category of “workman”.

“The government calls it an honorarium, but it is after all a wage, and it must be paid on time and in an organised manner. Our Gujarat union was party to the applicants and is also helping the retired workers to claim the gratuity in the state. In Karnataka, recently, we had huge success in coming to an agreement with the state government over the claim of gratuity. But the Haryana government has refused to provide any gratuity,” said Sindhu.

There is also no move towards making the workers eligible for pension, she added, pointing to the fact that in Kerala, the workers are given a Welfare Board Pension, in Karnataka a Provident Fund pension and in West Bengal a lump sum post-retirement.

Anganwadi worker Nupur Bhadra complained that she no longer gets her Travel Allowance (TA) and that her vegetable bill sometimes took months to get credited. “And if and when any worker from our nearest Anganwadi centre retires, we are asked to do all the [substitute] work for Rs. 50 a month,” she said.

Sindhu alleged that in some parts of India, the rents of Anganwadi centres have not come in for over two years. There are some 100,000 vacancies for Anganwadi workers across the country, but nothing is being done about this, she added.

We are trying to contact Aditi Das Rout, additional secretary of the Saksham Anganwadi and Mission Poshan 2.0, in the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, for her comments on these grievances. We will update the article when we receive a response.

  • Sayantani Upadhaya is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, West Bengal

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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