Anganwadi protests: higher pay, better working conditions demanded

Anganwadi workers gathered for an indefinite strike in front of Vikas Bhawan in New Delhi's Civil Lines

Anganwadi workers and helpers have sat on an indefinite strike near Kejriwal’s residence

Arushi Bhaskar

Shouts of “Farziwal Murdabad” resonated all around Vikas Bhawan in Delhi’s Civil Lines, near Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s residence. The word ‘Farziwal’ is a play on the CM’s last name, with ‘farzi’ meaning fake in Urdu— it is the first indication that all is not right in his relationship with Anganwadi workers and helpers, who he has often referred to as his “sisters”.

Government inhe employee nahi maanti hai, government inhe voluntary worker maanti hai (Government doesn’t consider them employees, government considers them voluntary workers),” said Shivani Kaul, President of the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union (DSAWHU). The union is currently organising an indefinite strike to protest against both the Delhi and Union governments’ policies regarding the workers and helpers.

A protest banner draped over a police barricade. (Translation: “The strike is from 31st January! We won’t remain as bonded labour!!”)

The anganwadi scheme falls under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). It is a Union government scheme implemented by State governments, in which an anganwadi (“courtyard shelter” in Hindi) act as a maternal and child care facility. An anganwadi worker is responsible for the nutritional, health, and educational needs of pregnant women and children from the age group 0-6 years.

One of the key demands of the protesters is to be recognised as government employees and for their work to be regularised. They want benefits like Employee State Insurance (ESI), Provident Fund (PF), paid sick leave and maternity leave, which government employees are entitled to. They also want summer holidays like school teachers.

“If we are made regular government employees, our rights wouldn’t be violated like they are currently,” said Rekha Dubey, who has been an Anganwadi worker for 13 years and is currently volunteering with the union to organise the protests.

“CDPO (Child Development Project Officer) often threatens us with a memo (meaning dismissal) if we say even one word in protest,” she continued. The CDPO is the district level officer in the ICDS scheme and is its key functionary.

Other protesters also talked about harassment by seniors and a complete lack of boundaries. “We want the constant pressure we have to go away— our supervisor calls us at any time of the night asking for files and reports,” said Rajini (goes by her first name), who has been an Anganwadi worker for the last 10 years at the Bhatti mines.

“We, as a union, feel that we do all the work in the world apart from the work that we actually signed up for,” said Rekha Sharma, an Anganwadi worker from Govindpuri volunteering with the union.

“We have to do animal survey (do a survey of how many houses have pets), COVID duties, getting people to make aadhar cards, election duty, etc.,” she continued. “We only have to look after pregnant ladies and 0-6 kids (as per scheme guidelines), but our work exceeds that by a large amount.”

Protesters said that in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, they were not provided with basic precautions like masks, sanitizers and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits. They were still ordered to take on various responsibilities related to the pandemic by their superiors, including door-to-door distribution of ration and taking care of those infected by the virus.

Vrishali Shruti, the media cell coordinator of DSAWHU, said that the workers were often asked to buy masks and sanitisers for the people in their communities from their own pockets.

When it came to being vaccinated in early 2021, Anganwadi workers and helpers were not given the same priority as other frontline workers like doctors, nurses, etc. “Hospital mein dhakke kha-khakar lagwayi hai humne vaccine (We had to get pushed around in the hospital to get the vaccine),” said Savita (goes by her first name), an Anganwadi helper.

“If we weren’t associated with them on the ground, no work would ever have been done,” she added.

However, when asked why they are protesting, the unanimous answer of the anganwadi workers and helpers was the demand of a higher pay. Currently, a worker is paid an honorarium of around Rs. 9600, while a helper is paid Rs. 4800. The protestors want this to be raised to Rs. 25000 and Rs. 20000 respectively.

On top of this, the workers and helpers are often not paid on time. Nor are they given data recharge for their phones. This is absolutely crucial since they have to do a major chunk of their work on the Poshan Tracker app, which is supposed to record real-time data on malnourishment in anganwadis.

According to a report published by The Hindu in December 2021, more than Rs. 1000 crore have been spent on the app by the Union government— but the data has not been made public, with the government citing privacy concerns.

“They pay us too little, and even that we don’t get on time. We have to pay for everything ourselves. I am a single parent with two children. How am I supposed to bring up two kids with only Rs. 9000?” said Anjali Sharma, who has been an anganwadi worker since 2019.

“We get lesser pay than manual labourers. If educated people are treated like this, what message does it give? Should we leave our jobs and start doing that work now? Leave our education behind?” said Dubey.

Banners at the protest calling for boycott of major political parties.

Both the Union and State governments are responsible for paying workers and helpers. Both routinely promise workers and helpers of bonuses and raises, but these rarely translate into reality. A big grievance at the protest was a promise made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018, in which anganwadi workers and helpers were supposed to get a raise of Rs. 1800.

Till date, no one has received a single rupee of that, according to the workers at the protest site.

Modi ji kehte hain betiyan padhein, aage badhein, par uske liye paison ke zaroorat hai. Nau hazaar mein ek bacchi ko khila bhi nahi sakte, padhayenge kya? (Modi ji says that daughters should study, should move forward in life, but money is required for that. In Rs. 9000, you can’t even feed a daughter, how will you educate her?” said Dubey.

The last time workers and helpers had received a raise was in 2017, after similar protests. According to Shruti, they had protested for 60 days before their demands were met.

“Today he’s (Kejriwal) going everywhere and taking credit for the raise, but he’s not telling anyone that back then, he had refused to even talk to the union. He had outrightly claimed that the women sitting outside are not anganwadi workers, they are paid to sit there,” she said.

A placard seen at the protest. (Translation: “Whenever women have risen, history has changed its course.”)

In her budget speech in the Parliament on February 1 this year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that two lakh anganwadis will be upgraded under the ‘Saksham Anganwadi’ scheme. This will facilitate the development of “new generation anganwadis” with better infrastructure for improved early development of children.

Ghoshnayein bas paperon ki shobha badhati hain (Announcements only increase the grace of papers),” said Kaul while talking about the budget. She added that the government has not provided any compensation to those who lost their lives due to COVID, and such schemes merely cover the oppressive policies of the government towards the workers and helpers.

“There was no provision for what would happen to us if we got COVID on duty. None whatsoever. But still we were forced to go and do work,” said Kanchan, who is an Anganwadi worker in Seelampur.

Another major talking point at the protest was the National Education Policy 2020, which seeks to give anganwadi workers the task of formal pre-school learning through its ‘5+3+3+4’ design of schooling. According to Shruti, this will result in massive retrenchment of workers, since most will not be qualified to take on the additional work.

Anganwadi workers protesting the National Education Policy 2020 (Translation: “The new education policy of 2020 should be taken back and any kind of privatisation of ICDS must be stopped.”

At the end of the day, the workers and helpers want an end to their continuous exploitation at the workplace, and to be treated with respect and dignity. As Rajeshwari Kandpal, an anganwadi worker said, “The government seems to be working with the idea that if there is work that needs to be done but no one is willing to do it, it will be passed on to the anganwadi workers. From election duties to spreading awareness about vaccines, we unwillingly do it all.”