FOR four days from March 20 to March 23, thousands of anganwadi workers from across Karnataka staged a protest in Bengaluru demanding an increase in their monthly honorarium from Rs.7,000 (including a Rs.1,000 hike announced in the recent State Budget) to Rs.10,000. They also wanted the helpers’ pay to be increased from Rs.3,500 (including a Rs.500 hike announced in the State Budget) to Rs.7,000. According to members of the Karnataka Rajya Anganwadi Noukara Sangha (Karnataka State Anganwadi Workers’ Association, or KSAWA), more than 10,000 women participated in the protest.
The venue was Freedom Park in central Bengaluru, and most of the participants spent the nights there in inhospitable conditions with limited access to toilets. The protest drew the attention of the news media, and the plight of the workers evoked public sympathy. The protest coincided with the ongoing Budget session of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, where there were heated debates on the issue. The Leader of the Opposition, Jagadish Shettar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who raised the issue, reportedly stated: “The demands of anganwadi workers are genuine and need immediate attention of the State government. They have been protesting on the road. They are also compelled to sleep on the road in support of their demands.” H.D. Kumaraswamy, State president of the Janata Dal (Secular), visited the protesters and endorsed their demands. Pro-Kannada organisations also extended their support to them.
The issue was raised in the Lok Sabha on March 23 by the Congress’ M. Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition, and this drew a response from the BJP’s Ananth Kumar, Union Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Chemicals and Fertilizers. Both Kharge and Kumar are Members of Parliament from Karnataka. The cost of the honorarium given to anganwadi workers and helpers is split evenly between the Union and State governments. This has led to a situation where the State and Central governments blame each other for the lack of funds.
The protests were called off on March 23 after Chief Minister Siddaramaiah assured the protesters that the State government would consider the demands in a meeting on April 10.
Anganwadis were established all over the country in 1975 as part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. Karnataka at present has 61,187 full-fledged anganwadis and 3,331 mini anganwadis. Each full-fledged anganwadi employs a worker and a helper, while a mini-anganwadi has one person who combines both the roles. There are currently around 1,25,000 anganwadi workers and helpers in Karnataka. Anganwadis provide preschool education and function as creches. Established mainly to combat malnutrition among children under six, they also serve a nutritious lunch apart from a mid-morning snack.
On March 30, L.R. Nalinakshi, 46, an anganwadi worker, was back in her workplace in Linganahalli, a neatly laid-out village of 266 households located an hour away from Bengaluru, close to the town of Doddaballapura. The room has several colourful charts and cheap toys, and children in the three-to-six age group were busy with their colouring books. Linganahalli is a mixed-caste village, with backward classes making up the bulk of the residents. They include a large population of Vokkaligas and a smaller population of Lingayats, the two dominant castes in Karnataka. There are also people from the Kuruba, Bhajantri and Agasa castes, and Dalits and Nayakas (a Scheduled Tribe). There are no Brahmins, Muslims or Christians. While agriculture is the mainstay of the community, the presence of an industrial town nearby and the closeness to Bengaluru mean that many of the residents also work in factories.
The children who benefit from anganwadis are usually from backward class, Dalit and Muslim communities. In Linganahalli, for instance, of the 23 children on the rolls, 10 are Dalits, six are Nayakas, and seven are from the backward classes. This ratio is not commensurate with the demographic composition of the village. The parents are either agricultural labourers or factory workers.
Nalinakshi, who is from this village and has worked in this anganwadi for 20 years, said: “Anganwadi workers like me put in six and a half hours every day. We start work at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 4 p.m. We work for six days a week, and what do we get for this? A mere Rs.6,000. What is the value of this amount nowadays?” About her helper, Lakshmamma, 58, who is two years away from her retirement, she said: “She has worked in this anganwadi for 14 years. She cooks the midday meal for the children, cleans after them, and drops them back home; and how much does she make? Rs.3,000! And what savings does she have after all these years for her old age? Nothing!”Combining multiple roles
Nalinakshi listed the various responsibilities that the anganwadi worker shouldered. Apart from providing a preschool environment and creche for young children, the anganwadi worker takes responsibility for the health of women and infants in the village, particularly teenage girls, pregnant women and new mothers. She keeps track of the infants’ nourishment and makes sure that the child receives all the mandatory immunisations. Anganwadi workers work closely with accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers in their village, and their services are used in mass vaccination campaigns such as the Pulse Polio drive. They are also responsible for the identification of eligible girls under the Bhagyalakshmi scheme (a scheme for up to two girls from Below Poverty Line families in Karnataka) and liaise with adult women for forming self-help groups (SHGs) under the Stree Shakti Scheme in the State. They keep a record of births and deaths in the village. Occasionally, during elections at various levels, anganwadi workers are expected to fulfil the role of booth level officers. “As you can see, we fulfil many roles. Our work rarely gets finished by 4:30 p.m. and continues late into the evening. Considering all this, we are paid a pittance,” Nalinakshi said.
S. Varalakshmi, president of the KSAWA and also of the Karnataka State Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), has been organising anganwadi workers in Karnataka from 1994. “Anganwadi workers are not paid a minimum wage as stipulated by various guidelines,” she said. While the primary demand of the agitation was to increase the honorarium, the safety of anganwadi workers is also a serious concern. “Anganwadi workers are usually single women because of the nature of their work, because of which they fall easy prey to sexual exploitation,” Varalakshmi added.
Anganwadi workers do not have the service benefits that government employees are entitled to and do not get a pension or gratuity on retirement. The regularisation of their services, therefore, has also been a constant demand. In Karnataka, they do not have a grade pay and are paid a flat rate as honorarium. This means that a newly recruited anganwadi worker and a senior worker who have put in years of service are both paid Rs.7,000. The same goes for the helper.
Unlike government employees, whose benefits are systematically provided and are periodically revised, anganwadi workers have to wait for the Budget every year to find out if they have been provided any extra benefits. The 2017-18 Karnataka State Budget included anganwadi workers in the Accident Insurance Scheme. Anganwadi workers of Karnataka also complain that their counterparts in Kerala, Goa, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu are better paid: Varalakshmi said the pay of workers in those States ranges between Rs.10,000 and Rs.14,000 a month.
Back in Linganahalli, Nalinakshi and Lakshmamma had just finished serving lunch to the children when this correspondent visited their anganwadi. The children dipped into their hot rice and sambar with obvious relish. “When I first joined as an anganwadi worker 20 years ago, my honorarium was Rs.350 a month. Now, we get paid Rs.7,000, and all we are agitating for is Rs.10,000,” Nalinakshi said. “In spite of all this, our work gives us great joy. I feel very happy when some of the children who were toddlers when they first came here are all grown up now and remember the time that they spent at the anganwadi fondly.”