All work and no pay

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

A protest march by anganwadi workers in Madhya Pradesh. -

A protest march by anganwadi workers in Madhya Pradesh. -

The three-decade-old Integrated Child Development Scheme is being expanded to create more child-care centres, but anganwadi workers and helpers, who play the key role in its implementation, are denied even job regularisation.

MUCH maligned, and labelled as indolent and corrupt, anganwadi workers (social workers or voluntary workers) are, in reality, a harassed and overworked lot. Although asked to carry out every government or semi-government task, they are denied the entitlements of a regular government employee. Instead, often they are blamed for mismanagement of schemes.

Anganwadi workers are involved in various government schemes such as pre-school and health education, maintenance of records of births and deaths, administration of pulse-polio drops, and provision of supplementary nutrition to pregnant and lactating mothers and children up to the age of six. Their services are used to achieve family planning targets and failure in meeting them would mean that their measly honorarium is cut. They intervene to settle village disputes but must go to the panchayat office to get their leave sanctioned or to collect their honorarium, which is often delayed.

To top it all, anganwadi workers constitute the backbone of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), which completes 30 years on October 2, though they are blamed for any high rate of infant or maternal mortality in the population covered by them. The ICDS is a major Central government programme administered by the Women and Child Development Departments in the States.

A proposal to universalise the ICDS came up in the Ninth Five-Year Plan, but it did not materialise. On November 28, 2001, the Supreme Court directed the Central and State governments to ensure that there was a functional anganwadi (child-care centre) in every settlement. In April 2004, the court reaffirmed that the ICDS should be universalised without delay to cover all habitations.

In spite of her high social relevance, job security eludes the anganwadi worker, whose economic and social profile is low. Her profile is that of a deserted, separated or widowed middle-aged woman, located right in the midst of the village community and affected by local political dynamics.

On September 22, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, in keeping with its promise in the Common Minimum Programme to "universalise the ICDS scheme to provide a functional anganwadi in every settlement and ensure full coverage for all children", sanctioned 467 additional ICDS projects and 1,88,168 anganwadi centres. The new centres are to come into effect from March 2006. This broad-basing of the scheme will result in the employment of 3.65 lakh women as anganwadi workers, but they will continue to be "honorary community workers". Ironically, the expansion of the project will create some 10,000 regular government jobs.

The National Advisory Council (NAC) in its report submitted to the government in September recommended that "permanent appointments of anganwadi workers should be avoided. Generally anganwadi workers should have time-bound appointments, renewable at fixed intervals (say every five or 10 years) with the recommendation of the community". It also proposed the appointment of a second worker in each anganwadi.

The mismatch between the priorities of the government and the situation on the ground was made clear by the protest staged by anganwadi workers in Phagwara district of Punjab on September 21. They demanded the closure of pre-nursery schools, revision of pay scales, restoration of allowances and provision of holidays.

Anganwadi centres are required to impart pre-school education, the prime objectives of which are to motivate children to attend school and to improve retention. However, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), a Central scheme for the universalisation of elementary education, provisions for pre-school education were made with the added incentive of a mid-day meal. Anganwadi centres were thus rendered redundant in this regard; some centres were closed as parents began sending their children for pre-school education under the SSA.

"This was clearly duplication of work," says K. Hemalata, secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers. There are six lakh anganwadis in the country as against an estimated 17 lakhs required for universal coverage.

Supplementary nutrition is provided to 3.4 crore children, as opposed to 16 crore children (half of whom are undernourished) in the zero to six age group.

In the Health and Family Welfare Department, the anganwadi worker's job is to create awareness about oral rehydration therapy, upper respiratory tract infections, and directly observed treatment system for tuberculosis and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and provide education on birth control methods. In the Education Department, she is involved in the total literacy programmes, the SSA, and non-formal education schemes. The responsibilities of these workers vary from State to State.

In some States, they are required to promote small savings and group insurance, form self-help groups, conduct surveys to identify below-poverty-line families and diseases such as leprosy and filariasis, and even help in cattle census. Under the ICDS, they are required to work for four hours a day but usually put in eight to nine hours given these extra responsibilities.

Hemalata says the ICDS itself needs to be institutionalised and converted into a regular department and integrated with the Department of Women and Child Development. Lack of funds is often cited as a reason for the non-regularisation of anganwadi employees, though, in practice, there is duplication of programmes and competition for the same set of beneficiaries. The Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), under the UPA's National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), is required to perform almost the same functions as the anganwadi worker.

It may be recalled that during the finalisation of the NRHM, serious concerns were raised about the status of the ASHA. If anganwadis served as day-care centres as well, the dropout rates of girls in schools would come down, says Hemalata. At present the centres cater to meeting the supplementary nutrition demands of infants.

The onus of providing supplementary nutrition is on the State governments although, while announcing the expansion of the ICDS, the Central government promised to provide Rs.1,500 crores in the next Union Budget for the purpose. While this is a positive move, the quality of nutrition provided is a matter of dispute. In several States, the federation had to struggle to improve the quality of food served. "Finally the onus falls on the worker and the helper," says Hargobind Kaur, president of the Punjab unit of the Federation. According to her, if a child falls sick after consuming the food served at the centre, the villagers will only blame the anganwadi worker.

Varalakshmi, president of the Karnataka branch of the Federation said the honorarium was never paid on time. "The Child Development Project Officers [CDPO] would say that there is some technical problem as the funds have not come from the Centre. Anganwadi workers have to make appeals at various levels repeatedly, from the sarpanch to the CDPO, to get their due," she said. The Federation received complaints from its members in several States that the CDPOs and even the sarpanchs demanded commissions from these women to release the honorarium.

In Andhra Pradesh, during the regime of the Telugu Desam Party, the idea of "mothers' committees" was conceived. A government order was issued stating that these committees would decide the honorarium. The unions protested as they saw this as another mechanism to deprive the women of their legitimate honorarium. Lalithamma, general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh branch of the Federation, said that all these measures were taken in the name of "empowering the community", and "decentralisation".

Barring anganwadi workers, others employed under the ICDS either hold a regular job or are on contract. Says Hemalata: "The government says the programme is not designed that way and that anganwadi workers are considered voluntary workers. We want this to change. Thirty lakh women are engaged as either workers or helpers; they are not doing voluntary duty. It is an economic compulsion for the majority of them. The government's idea is that the community should take over one day. But it is utopian even to imagine this." She said there were not enough buildings for anganwadi centres in the first place and that anganwadi workers carried on activities from their homes, for which they were not paid any rent. "Whenever there is any death resulting from malnourishment, the blame immediately falls on the anganwadi worker," said Shubha Shamim, the Federation's representative from Maharashtra.

Hargobind Kaur said that in Punjab no supplementary feed was given to the centres for three consecutive years. She said a long struggle had to be waged against the supply of rotten food. Two workers, Darshana Devi and Sarabjeet Kaur, were dismissed in Bhatinda after they spoke to the media regarding the substandard food. The Punjab union did not take this lightly. As matters came to a head, the top bureaucracy instead pulled up the lower staff for being unable to control the anganwadi workers. The two women were reinstated but had to face the charge of "defaming the department". Says Hargobind Kaur: "It is unfortunate. They are not regular government employees and yet people see them as government representatives. They rely on them for so many things. What if some child or mother dies after eating the rotten food? The anganwadi worker will have to face the music, not the sarpanch or the CDPO."

Anganwadi workers suffer all forms of exploitation: molestation, rape and even murder. They are expected to reach the block headquarters at any cost, whenever meetings are held. In the process, they are exposed to several risks. In several States, in the name of empowering the panchayats, the sarpanchs are authorised to sign the attendance certificates of anganwadi workers. Often these women would be told to come in the evening or in the night to collect the certificates.

In addition to their physical vulnerability, they are made to shell out money to organise baby shows, mass birthdays, breast-feeding day or women's day. Shubha Shamim said that almost every month there would be an event where either the anganwadi worker had to collect money from the community or she would have to spend from her own pocket to organise it.

An anganwadi worker gets an honorarium of Rs.1,000 a month and a helper Rs.500. Some State governments give extra amounts depending on the workload. But still the total payment is very low considering the work extracted. In April, to give an impetus to the demand for their regularisation, the Federation collected 10 million signatures from the beneficiaries of anganwadi services and submitted them to the Women and Child Development Department at the Centre. Nothing came of it.

The working conditions of the workers are never given any serious thought. The vulnerability of these workers has been increased by the fact that ever since the honorarium was increased in 2002, the demand for these posts has gone up, especially given the overall environment of unemployment and agrarian distress.

The workers face a lot of harassment. Varalakshmi recounted how in 2004 the police refused to register the murder of an anganwadi worker in Koppal district in Karnataka until the Federation put pressure on the administration. She said that in August there was an attempt to molest an anganwadi worker in Kunigal taluk in Tumkur district. At Shirugupa in Bellary district, a cameraperson tried to film an anganwadi centre apparently to "expose" it. "This is the extent to which the worker is vulnerable," Varalakshmi said.

Only the Left parties have supported the demand for the regularisation of anganwadi workers. After all, the demand is in the interest of child and maternal mortality. The NAC has stated that the best means of providing immediate protection to vulnerable children is to universalise and improve the ICDS. According to the National Family Health Survey 1998-99, nearly half of all Indian children are undernourished and the country has the highest level of child under-nutrition in the world, along with Bangladesh and Nepal.

The allocation for the ICDS is itself low. It is barely Rs.1,600 crores (as per the 2004-05 Budget) and the combined expenditure is less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of India's gross domestic product. The reach of the ICDS has to be tripled in order to provide essential health and nutrition services to 16 crore children.

Anganwadi workers have waited for 30 years for a policy to regularise their services. The entire ICDS infrastructure has to be strengthened, financially and administratively. There is no need to set up institutions that will duplicate its work and render the centres redundant, in the name of empowering the community. Otherwise, ICDS work will suffer and it will also result in the disempowerment of the anganwadi worker, which could affect the centrality of these workers in arresting child mortality.

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