Anganwadi workers and helpers: Are they fighting a losing battle?

Governments, both at the Centre and in states, see them as volunteers and social workers who are paid an honorarium, not wages. In this set-up, they have no leave entitlement, not even sick leave

Anganwadi workers and helpers in Delhi took out a protest march in Delhi over their various unmet demands, on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022
Anganwadi workers and helpers in Delhi took out a protest march in Delhi over their various unmet demands, on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022
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Ashlin Mathew

Anganwadi workers and helpers across the country have been protesting for the past several years for higher and regular wages, paid leave, social security and recognition as government employees.

Protests were revived in Delhi and Haryana in January this year; in March, the protests spread to Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka; in April, workers and helpers in Goa and Madhya Pradesh hit the streets. This week, anganwadi workers and helpers in Jammu & Kashmir held demonstrations with similar demands.

Governments, however, both at the Centre and in states, see them as volunteers, social workers and community-based frontline workers who are paid an honorarium, not wages. In this set-up, anganwadi workers have no leave entitlement, not even sick leave. However, they are asked and expected to carry out various administrative duties and their pay is deducted, if they turn up late at the centre or if they are unable to work for a few days. A 15-minute delay can halve the daily honorarium even though they are made to work the whole day.

Workers complain their workload has progressively increased; that during the pandemic they were forced to go without leave and provide services at the doorstep. They were made to deliver food, medicines and other supplies to people, but when they themselves fell ill, their wages or honorarium were deducted for the period they were unable to work.

On August 6, 2021, the Haryana government ‘terminated’ the services of Kamla Deora, 45, from Deora village in Kaithal district for joining the protests. She had not been paid her honorarium for one year. She had borrowed from relatives, friends and neighbours during the pandemic. She was finally reinstated in March 2022, after she went on a hunger strike.

Anganwadi workers (AWWs) and helpers in Delhi were not so lucky. As many as 884 out of 22,000 workers and helpers were sacked in March 2022 for ‘instigating’ or even joining protests. They have not been reinstated even after knocking on the doors of the Delhi High Court. In April, Goa terminated nine women workers for the same reason and reinstated them finally in August.

The honorarium anganwadi workers get is funded by both the Centre and the states, but delays in payment are often attributed to late release of budgets by the Centre. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a hike of Rs 1,500 and Rs 700, respectively in the honorariums of workers and helpers. Helpers in most states get Rs 5,000 a month and workers about double that amount, which, they point out, is even lower than the minimum wages. The promised raise has also not materialised, but that shouldn’t surprise anybody.

In February, Delhi minister Rajendra Pal Gautam announced that monthly honorariums for anganwadi workers were being raised from Rs 9,678 to Rs 12,720, and from Rs 4,839 to Rs 6,810 for helpers from March 1. In most states, workers at the main centres are paid an honorarium of Rs₹4,500 a month while those at mini centres get Rs 3,500. Helpers are paid ₹2,250 by the Centre.

“Along with the Centre’s share, Haryana pays Rs 12,000 to AWWs and Rs 6,500 to AWHs; AWWs get Rs 14,000 in Tamil Nadu, Rs 11,000 in Karnataka, Rs 10,000 in Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, Rs 9,500 in Punjab and just Rs 6,500 a month in Chhattisgarh,” says Shivani Kaul, president of Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union. In states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, workers and helpers have some state health insurance and pension, though the amounts are meagre, Kaul added.

The 1.3 million workers and 1.2 million helpers are the foot soldiers of the Inte g rated Child Development Services scheme, launched in 1975 to improve health, nutrition and education of children up to the age of 6 years and pregnant and lactating women.

An anganwadi centre normally covers a population of 1,000 in both rural and urban areas and 700 in tribal areas and is run by an AWW and a helper. Across India, over 70 per cent of children are enrolled in anganwadis.

In addition to feeding the children and beginning non-formal early school education for them, the AWWs and helpers are required to weigh and record the weight of each child, maintain health cards for children under six, carry out family surveys, organise supplementary nutritional feeding of children, expectant and nursing women, visit homes of children to educate parents about nutrition, assist PHC staff implement the health component of the scheme, help ANMs (auxiliary nurse midwives) administer medicines (vitamins and folic acid) at the centres.

The list of duties is not clearly outlined and there are apprehensions now of extra workload under the New Education Policy (NEP). In Uttarakhand, for example, anganwadi workers were even asked to go to Shivalayas or Shiva temples to offer water to kanwariyas. “During the recent panchayat elections in Madhya Pradesh, many of us were drafted to serve as block level officers to distribute voter slips. We were not paid any extra amount, though,” claimed Kishori Verma, general secretary of the Anganwadi Karyakarta Evam Sahayika Ekta Union of Madhya Pradesh. Verma herself ‘retired’ as an anganwadi worker last month, but as a voluntary social worker, has no pension or post-retirement benefits.

AWWs and AWHs in both Punjab and Haryana protested after a government order threatened them with a pay cut if they did not download the government’s Poshan Tracker mobile app (or nutrition monitor) to record the services they deliver. Most workers complained that they did not have smart phones and none of them had been trained to use the app, which worked only in English and not in the local language. They were also expected to log all the information on the mobile app as well as physical records.

Anganwadi workers tending to children at a centre
Anganwadi workers tending to children at a centre
Anganwadi workers and helpers: Are they fighting a losing battle?

In Karnataka, workers had not been reimbursed for eggs and vegetables for three months, pointed out S. Varalakshmi, state president of Karnataka Rajya Anganwadi Naukarara Sangha. Even the rent for anganwadi centres had to be often arranged by the AWWs, she claimed, as the government delayed making the payment in time.

Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced this year that 200,000 anganwadis would be modernised, but no budgetary provisions were made for this. Union budget 2022- 23 made a provision of Rs 20,263 crore for anganwadis, an increase of 0.7 per cent from Rs 20,105 crore in the 2021-22 budget.

Are these workers being treated right? Uma Mahadevan, former principal secretary in the department of women and child development in Karnataka, says honorariums to workers and helpers have been raised from time to time. Some states, including Karnataka, she said, have also given medical reimbursement and casual leave, done online recruitment for transparency and even appointments on compassionate grounds.

“What states can also do is reduce the non-ICDS work given to workers and helpers, so they are able to focus on [core] anganwadi work rather than being engaged in surveys and other administrative duties,” Mahadevan adds.

“What these women are doing is considered social work, but you can’t keep your own children hungry and take care of others’ children. They need to be paid adequately,” says Sylvia Karpagam, a doctor and researcher working on the right to nutrition and right to health/healthcare.

She believes the services of these anganwadi workers and helpers are not being regularised because they are women. “Women are always paid lower wages even though they are often called the shoulders on which the ICDS rests. If that is so, then they should be paid a decent wage. There should be political will to do this,” Karpagam says.

These women are going to raise the next generation of men and women, stresses Dr Vandana Prasad. “These frontline workers are the conveyors of almost all schemes at the village level.”

However, former secretary (family welfare) K. Sujata Rao is convinced there is no need to turn anganwadi workers and helpers into government employees eligible for pension. Community-based workers must be accountable to the community they serve and the community that pays, she asserts.

Ideally, governments should provide budgetary support to panchayats or SelfHelp Groups to run the ICDS centres and make these workers accountable to them, she maintains. If that is not the model, they effectively become government functionaries with the related implications and/or expectations of qualification, selection, (possible) transfer, payment and pension—and three times higher costs, points out Rao.

Mahadevan also says the women are recruited locally and not through the state public service commission. They are not civil servants and, hence, there is no concept of transfer and they cannot be considered on par with permanent government servants.

In March 2022, CPI(M) MPs Elamaram Kareem and V. Sivadasan had raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha. They said the ministry must recognise anganwadi workers as workers and not volunteers, increase their salary to match minimum wages and provide them social security.

In April 2022, the Supreme Court said anganwadi workers and helpers were entitled to gratuity under the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972. A bench of Justices Ajay Rastogi and Abhay S. Oka said because of the provisions of the National Food Security Act, 2013 and Section 11 of the Right to Education Act, anganwadi centres also perform statutory duties.

“The government resolution dated November 25, 2019, which prescribes duties of AWWs and AWHs, does not lay down that their job is a part-time job. Considering the nature of duties specified, it is full-time employment,” said the bench.

Justice Rastogi said it was time the Union and state governments ensured better service conditions for anganwadi workers and helpers commensurate with the duties they discharge.

But like so many other Supreme Court directions, this one too seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

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