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Labour issues

Women on the warpath: Haryana's anganwadi workers and helpers on indefinite strike

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
Tapan Sen, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions, addressing the protesting workers at Karnal.

Tapan Sen, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions, addressing the protesting workers at Karnal.

The ongoing   strike  is unprecedented, as is the government’s response.

The ongoing strike is unprecedented, as is the government’s response.

The women  are ready to sit on an indefinite protest until the government relents.

The women are ready to sit on an indefinite protest until the government relents.

Seventy per cent of Haryana’s anganwadi workers and helpers have been on an indefinite strike for two months demanding that the government honour its promise to increase their wages. And the government is making every effort to break the strike.

On February 15, nearly 40,000 young, middle-aged and elderly women marched towards the Chief Minister City (or CM City) in Karnal, Haryana, launching the second phase of a protest that began two months ago. These workers and helpers of anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)—the Central government’s supplementary nutrition scheme for children under six, adolescent girls, and pregnant and lactating mothers—had just one demand: that Chief Minister M.L. Khattar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi keep their promises regarding their wages.

For years, anganwadi workers and helpers, who are mostly from lower-income and lower and backward caste groups, have been receiving a subsistence honorarium with no social security or retirement benefits even though the scheme rests entirely on their shoulders. The honorarium had been raised from time to time only after a few Central trade unions organised them. These women now constitute a formidable force across the country among workers in the unorganised sector.

The women are in the process of making history in Haryana just as farmers protesting against the controversial farm laws did in 2020-21. Braving the bitter north Indian winter, thousands of them have been on strike, or a Taala Bandh hartal in local parlance, for more than two months since December 8 demanding that the Bharatiya Janata Party government implement the assurances Khattar made in the Assembly in March 2018 regarding their emoluments and working conditions.

Khattar made the assurance after anganwadi workers and helpers went on a month-long strike that year demanding a long-overdue raise in the honorarium.To assuage the strikers, the Chief Minister announced in the Assembly that they would be categorised as skilled and unskilled workers and paid wages according to the rates prevalent for those categories in the State. He also stated that they would get a Dearness Allowance (D.A.), and that Haryana would be the first State to do so. Accordingly, the honorarium was increased by Rs.3,000 for workers and Rs.1,500 for helpers. Later that year, in September 2018, Prime Minister Modi announced in his Mann Ki Baat address to the nation that the honorarium for ICDS workers and helpers across the country would be increased by Rs.1,500 and Rs.750, respectively.

The month-long strike in 2018 was called off after the government’s offer of an increase in honorarium and the provision for D.A., which would have ensured a decent wage indexed to inflation. The government released money for two instalments of D.A., but discontinued it arbitrarily after 2019. The promise of categorising anganwadi workers and helpers as unskilled and skilled workers was put into cold storage. And the Prime Minister’s announcement remained on paper.

After waiting for three years, from 2018 to 2021, the women decided to go on a State-wide strike accusing the government of reneging on its promise. It was an irony that, unlike employees in the organised sector where salaries are indexed to inflation, the honorariums for anganwadi workers and helpers were hiked only when these women took to the streets for their legitimate rights.

The ongoing strike is unprecedented, as is the government’s response. Ever since it began, the services of 100 workers and helpers have been terminated and 400 strikers have first information reports (FIR) filed against them. But the women are unfazed. Shakuntala, general secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (Haryana), one of the two unions leading the strike, said: “We cannot go back. The government is not implementing its own announcement. It cannot take us for granted. Three years ago it promised to increase our honorarium and place us in the category of skilled and unskilled workers. We waited from 2018 to 2021. We submitted memorandums and organised small protests to remind the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of their promises. Now M.L. Khattar says he made those assurances in passing. What does that mean? How can an elected head of state talk like this? His words have no credibility. Neither does the Prime Minister’s Mann Ki Baat declaration mean anything. His Mann Ki Baat remained in his mann [mind] only.”

Shakuntala, who joined the ICDS in 2011, is among the dismissed workers. “We are really not bothered about the termination of our services or even the FIRs. The women are ready to sit on an indefinite protest if that is what will make the government relent,” said Shakuntala, whose union is affiliated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The strike is led by two State-level federations, one affiliated with the CITU and the other with the All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC).

The talks that failed

When it became clear that the government had no intention of keeping its promises, three of the five unions in the State got together in December 2021 and formed a committee. They held six rounds of talks, five with department officials and one with the Chief Minister on December 29. Shakuntala said the representatives of all the five unions met the government representatives.

However, Shakuntala told Frontline, representatives of the union affiliated with the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the labour wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, began praising the government’s efforts even before the charter of demands was handed over to the Chief Minister. She said she objected to this. The BMS has largely been silent on issues, such as consolidating all labour laws into four labour codes in the name of doing ease of business, simplifying compliance standards for industry, implementing fixed-term employment, or selling profit-making public sector units, which have been raised by the other Central trade unions. The BMS has stayed away from the agitation.

In the December 29 meeting, when the unions reminded the Chief Minister of his promise, the latter told them that he had made the announcement in a fit of enthusiasm but could not implement it. Said Shakuntala: “He told us that his government was already paying us too much and that the State government ranked number one in giving benefits. We told him that Haryana was ranked fifth and not number one.” Incidentally, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Telangana gave higher honorariums to anganwadi workers and helpers than Haryana did.

The government renotified a 2016 decision to provide a travel allowance to the anganwadi staff for their attendance at select meetings. It also stated that it would revise the rents of ICDS centres, for which a notification had already been issued. The rent, Shakuntala said, was only a pittance.

In Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, anganwadi workers and helpers are given promotions based on seniority. When the unions told the Chief Minister about the promotion opportunities in Punjab, they were advised to go to that State. In Haryana, Shakuntala said, workers and helpers were expected to clear examinations to get promotions.

The government agreed to pay an ex gratia amount of Rs.2 lakh to anganwadi workers and helpers in the event of an accidental death, but not if the death was from natural causes. “Accredited Social Health Activists [ASHA] get an ex gratia amount of Rs.3 lakh in deaths from natural causes, but we would be given Rs.2 lakh, and only if the death was caused by an accident. How is it fair?” said Shakuntala.

According to the government, since it had already increased the honorarium in March 2018 it made no sense to increase it again after the Prime Minister’s announcement. “Does this mean that the Chief Minister knew that the Prime Minister was going to make an announcement in September 2018?” she asked.

After the December 29 meeting, the government also announced its intent to give a one-time pension of Rs.1 lakh to workers upon their retirement at the age of 65 and Rs.50,000 to helpers. But this also was not unique; in some States, the pensions ranged from Rs.3 lakh to Rs.5 lakh.

Determined to win

Anganwadi workers and helpers Frontline spoke to said that the protest was unprecedented in more ways than one. Never before had any government expended so much energy on breaking a strike and that too by women. Government officials, they said, were pressuring the families of strikers through influential people. ASHA workers and supervisors have been asked to obtain information of the spouses of the striking women, especially if they were employed with the government. Some of the spouses were lured with promotions if they persuaded their wives to end the strike and return to work. “When women have not feared terminations of service and FIRs, the pressure from their families is also not going to affect their morale. Of the 52,000 workers and helpers in the State, 40,000 are on strike which is close to 70 per cent,” said Suman, an anganwadi worker.

Said Sunita, the district president of the CITU-backed union in Charkhi Dadri: “We are not asking for anything new. Just that the old demands be implemented. We get Rs.11,811 as a monthly honorarium. How can we run our households with that? Even a daily wager gets Rs.450 a day.”

She said even though the government had declared them front-line warriors in the battle against COVID-19, they were not given any protective equipment, gloves, sanitisers or masks. She said: “If there is 100 per cent vaccination today, it is because we have motivated people to get vaccinated. During COVID, they did not give us anything. Regular government employees refused to work during the pandemic, but we did not have that choice. The government says Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao [Save daughters, Educate daughters]. Aren’t we betis [daughters] of this country?”

Anganwadi workers and helpers were the only field-level workers of the government, available at all times and on all occasions, she said. “Who else does the government deploy but us to distribute benefits to people? I have spent 11 years as an ICDS worker. When I joined, my honorarium was Rs.5,000 and now I get Rs.11,811. It was not given to us on a platter. This was possible only after we fought for it,” said Sunita.

The strikers are bitter over the way the government treated them during the pandemic. ICDS services were disrupted as workers and helpers were roped in to support the government’s efforts in COVID management. While ASHA workers got a measly amount of of Rs.1,000 as a one-time honorarium, ICDS workers and helpers got nothing at all. Shakuntala said that when it was brought to the Chief Minister’s notice in the December 29 meeting about how ICDS workers and helpers had distributed two and a half lakh masks, ration, worked at vaccination centres and encouraged people to get vaccinated, he feigned ignorance.

Later, Khattar assured the union representatives that all anganwadi workers and helpers would also be given a one-time amount of Rs.1,000, but later the government issued a notification saying that only those who had been given duty during COVID would get the honorarium. “This notification was issued while our strike was on. It was done mainly to break the strike. Our women turned it down,” Shakuntala said. For women like her, it is a do-or-die situation.

In an effort to bypass the angandwadi staff, the State government instructed ICDS supervisors to get sarpanchs to distribute rations to pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under five years of age. The sarpanchas, it was learnt, refused to do it. “The government is trying to find alternatives but not succeeding at it. We feel bad for the poor nutritional and health status of children and pregnant and lactating mothers. But what do we do? We do not have any option,” Shakuntala said.

Anganwadi workers and helpers are the linchpin of the largest supplementary nutrition programme in the world, but they are not recognised as government employees even though their services are sought for every kind of government work. The ICDS scheme describes an anganwadi worker as “a lady selected from the local community, a community-based front-line honorary worker of the ICDS programme. She is an agent of social change, mobilising community support for better care of young children, girls and women.”

For years, anganwadi workers in the country have been fighting to get the Union government to recognise them as regular government employees and give them benefits accordingly. But successive Central governments have failed to grant that recognition or to regularise their services.

The government’s standard response to their demand is that under the ICDS, anganwadi workers are honorary workers and hence are not eligible to be treated on a par with government employees. But it is not as if the definition of an anganwadi worker is set in stone. In contrast, supervisors, Child Development Project Officers and District Programme Officers who are part of the ICDS team are regular government employees.

In the Union Budget 2022-23, the Central government declared that the infrastructure of two lakh anganwadi centres would be upgraded with audiovisual aids supported by clean energy. Yet the Budget Estimate for 2022-23 is less than that for 2021-22. The women say that along with audiovisual aids, it would be better if the government provided the centres with basic infrastructure such as toilets and drinking water.