Anganwadi workers and helpers stage an agitation for recognition as government staff.
FOR 10 days from July 25, thousands of anganwadi workers and helpers from across the country held an unprecedented agitation in New Delhi to demand better remuneration and recognition as government employees. Although they form the bulwark of the three-decade-old Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme by contributing to the prevention of infant and maternal mortality, anganwadi workers are one of the most ill-paid categories under the scheme. They are eligible for only a meagre honorarium, which is often not paid. They resorted to the agitation route after a delegation of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, which presented their demands to Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chaudhary, returned without any promises.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government took the position that it was willing to give some nominal benefits, but it would not concede the basic demands. It would rather put the burden on the already cash-strapped State governments.
In reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha on July 31, the Minister stated that the ICDS scheme envisaged anganwadi workers and helpers as honorary workers, who volunteered to render services on a part-time basis at the anganwadi centres; that they were grassroots functionaries in view of their honorary status; and that it would not be possible to treat them as government employees. In sum, the government believes that they are `social workers'.
An officer in the Ministry argued that regularisation of their services was impossible as already retrenchment was on in government services. The other argument was that anganwadi workers and helpers did not put in more than four hours of work daily. The official document, he concluded, stated they were social workers, not government employees. The stand remained the same even when several Left Members of Parliament raised the issue.
What the anganwadi workers and helpers cannot understand is why everyone involved in the ICDS scheme, barring them, is considered a government employee and receives government benefits. What is sacrosanct about the "honorary" nature of the scheme, especially when it is a government scheme and is well within the powers of the government to change it? If the government is serious about arresting child morbidity and mortality, why does it treat the grassroot functionary with such apathy, they ask.
Indu Kumari, a helper from Samastipur in Bihar, said that the Child Development Project Officer paid her an honorarium of Rs.500 a month, once in six months. Also, helpers were not paid the minimum wages stipulated in the respective States.
Several workers and helpers from Bihar said they wanted regularisation of services, relief from the village sarpanch and promotions to the posts of superviser. The State government, she said, preferred to recruit primary schoolteachers to the posts of superviser instead of promoting anganwadi workers and helpers who had more experience in the area. Prema Varma, an office-bearer of the All-India Federation from East Champaran, said that all State governments were of the view that anganwadi workers and helpers were incompetent. She said: "We have a lot of field knowledge, which even most government officers lack. The entire burden of society is placed on us. The least the government can do is to shoulder some responsibility for us."
Another worker, Sangeeta Rai, said that in most parts of Samastipur district, the sarpanch was given the responsibility of releasing the honoraria. This enabled the panchayat functionary to exercise control over the workers. Some of them took "cuts" from the workers as a precondition for releasing their honoraria.
Sangeeta Rai demanded to know why a retirement age of 60 was stipulated for them if they were social workers. Shanti Sharma, a worker from Delhi, asked why they were denied government employee status when they were entrusted with almost every government responsibility at the village level. She said: "They should give us minimum wages and should not retire us forcibly. We do the work for 10 to 20 registers, including immunisation under the pulse polio programme. We get no holiday or leave apart from the statutory government holidays. Worse still, we are summoned at any time." The majority of the complaints from the agitating workers related to inadequate and irregular payment of honoraria and long working hours. Shanti and Rajwanti from Faridabad in Haryana are well into their late fifties. They wonder why the government was keen on retiring them. They said they even had to take the blame for the bad ration supplied to the centres.
Malti, also from Faridabad, who had left her minor children with a neighbour so that she could participate in the hunger strike, asked: "How are we to manage with Rs.600 a month especially when there are school-going children?" Bharati Deba, a tribal woman from Assam, said successive governments in her State never enhanced the honoraria for anganwadi workers. The only contribution that came was from the Central government - Rs.1,000 for the worker and Rs.500 for the helper. She said while the State government argued that it was cash-strapped, it gave diaries to pre-school children.
In some other States, the federation managed to get the governments to contribute towards the honoraria for both categories of workers. In West Bengal, the Left Front government has a social security scheme for unorganised workers.
In States where there is some semblance of implementation of labour laws for the unorganised sector, anganwadi workers and helpers are given three months of maternity leave for the birth of up to two children.
Are the anganwadi workers asking for too much? In a 2006 study by the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development commissioned by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, it is observed that the ICDS scheme has performed considerably well. Its comprehensive intervention programme with a child-centred approach, respecting all cultural patterns and diversity has served as an instrument of change to bridge social inequalities. On anganwadi workers, the study notes that 62 per cent of the sample had more than 10 years' experience and that those who benefited most from the scheme are from the backward classes and the Scheduled Castes. In some States and Union Territories, more than 90 per cent of the children avail themselves of supplementary nutrition. On an average, 37 per cent of children are enrolled in pre-school education, which signifies that the workers have made positive efforts to bring children from the deprived sections to the centres so that they can make full use of the nutrition and health services.
Nearly 76.2 per cent of the pregnant mothers had received tetatnus toxoid immunisation and the records of all vaccinations were maintained properly by the anganwadi centres, says the study. The institute had conducted a similar study in 1992.
The latest study reveals that the overall coverage of beneficiaries under supplementary nutrition has increased substantially and a significant reduction has been found in the percentage of low-birth-weight babies and malnourished children. It recommends the augmentation of finances to the ICDS so as to release in time the honorarium to the workers.
The study observes that in view of the important cause the ICDS programme has taken up, higher allocations should be considered as an investment and not an expenditure. The least the government can do is to accept the recommendations.