People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 48

December 02, 2012



Not Just Nightingales, They Are Angels of Fire


G Mamatha


NOVEMBER 26, 2012. I rushed to Jantar Mantar, as usual, but this time with a slight interest aroused in me. The reason was, I heard that there were lot of Mamathas converging there. I was naturally interested to meet so many of my name-alikes. But on reaching there, I found out that they were in fact not Mamathas, but only called as such. I learnt that ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers are called mamathas in some places and they had come to protest. Thanks to the government, now-a-days, we do not only have steel plant workers, electricity workers, brick-kiln workers, etc., etc., but we also have ASHAs, Mamathas and Yashodas. What is common to all of them, apart from having such beautiful names? They are all women workers, who are not workers. Confused? No wonder, anybody would be. The fact is they are all 'scheme workers' – an innovative term, bringing forth the commonality amongst all of them – meaning they are all working for implementing the various schemes announced by the union and the state governments.


Now the question is, why are they not workers? The government of India, out of 'concern' for the welfare of 'aam aadmi' introduced (of course, continues to introduce) many schemes – to ensure that women have a safe delivery, to ensure that infants have adequate nutrition, to ensure that children are enrolled in schools, to ensure that there are no drop-outs from the school, to ensure that health care is brought nearer to the people and the list is endless. To ensure that such 'noble' acts of the government really benefit the aam aadmi, one should have a noble consciousness, a humanitarian concern, a service mentality – a mentality that is different from a worker who selfishly works for a wage. Their noble, selfless deeds cannot be quantified in terms of wages. They should be honoured. So, they are not paid wages, but given honorarium. And here lies the problem. I will explain.


Once there was an old man who complained that his son was not taking care of him. When the son was enquired, he replied that he was treating the old man as god. When the old man was questioned if it was true, he said that is the root of the problem. Just as to god all the delicacies are placed before him as offerings for his blessings (naivedyam). Remember, these offerings are not for the god to eat. It is the devotees who eat them after they are blessed by the god. Similarly the old man was offered all kinds of food, but it was the son and his wife who ate all of it. This is what he meant when he said that he was treated as god. Similar is the attitude of the government. The scheme workers are 'honoured' for their deeds, but not paid wages. And just as the old man, these scheme workers too are dying of hunger and are demanding not to be treated as 'gods'!


But gods they really are for many of the common people in our country, who live in remote regions and do not have access to many of the 'luxuries' that are normal facilities for you and me. Talking to these gods, was an experience in itself. They had narrated a host of stories, sorry, their tales of sweat and toil.


For a woman living in Odisha tribal areas, Jharna was a goddess. Jharna, attended to that woman all through her pregnancy, took her to a hospital, stayed in the hospital with her all throughout, even when her own husband and near ones could not – not because they do not love her, but they were forced, as they cannot afford to lose their wages for days together, when she was hospitalised. But Jharna stayed till her baby was born and she was discharged. What did goddess Jharna get? If everything went according to the script, she would be 'honoured' with Rs 350.


350 for regularly visiting the house of the pregnant woman for nine months, taking her to hospital and being by her side during the assisted child-birth. The fares incurred for the house-visits were paid by Jharna. The transportation costs for taking the woman to the hospital were paid by Jharna. The costs for staying by her bedside – food, tea, etc., are also paid by Jharna. And for all this she gets 350. Not to speak of the labour she has put in for being away from her own family, for these many days and hours. Now for a moment let us forget the money. How was she 'honoured', for all her noble efforts? The doctors in the hospital treat her as an obstacle to their work. The staff of the hospital look at her as a 'pest' bothering them, lingering around for few undeserved rupees.


These are not the experiences of Jharna alone. She finds an echo in Sharmila, from Bhiwani, Haryana and Savithri Devi, Bihar. Similar are the experiences of all those who had come from all over the country. They are all tired of being gods and goddesses. What are they demanding? They are asking the government to treat them as workers. Give them a minimum wage. Respect them for their work. The government should not forget that whatever little progress the country had achieved in Millennium Development Goals – for reducing maternal mortality rate – is due to these efforts of the ASHAs.


Similarly, even the snails movement in combating malnutrition in remote areas is due to the oldest of all the scheme workers – the anganwadis of Integrated Child Development Scheme. Being there on the field for many years has taught them the benefits of organisation. Better unionised than the other scheme workers, anganwadis have a history of struggles, which won them few benefits. Though, they too are yet to be treated as workers and receive minimum wages.


According to Poornima Roy from Koderma, Jharkhand, apart from their designated responsibilities, they do all the work that is additionally assigned to them by the government. They are involved in all works from collecting census data, data for aadhaar, population registry to mobilising people for government and ruling party programmes. All of this, without being paid a single additional pie as remuneration. Just as a leech sucks the blood, the government extracts the maximum from the anganwadis in their productive years. After being at the service of the State all through their life and when they become old and infirm, they do not have the State to stand by them. Just as they do not get wages, they are also not entitled to any retirement benefits – neither provident fund, nor pension.


The life of mid-day meal workers too is not very different. Jenina and Haiga Burman from Assam, friends and colleagues since long, share similar experiences. They said, “We get a meagre 1000 rupees per month, that too not regularly”. Already the government is intending to privatise the mid-day meal scheme implementation. NGOs are roped in to implement the scheme. In Uttar Pradesh, Ponty Chaddha, a notorious kingpin of the liquor mafia was the 'NGO' given the responsibility to run the scheme and this is a sample of government's commitment towards its responsibilities. Contrast this with the commitment of the mid-day meal 'workers'. Some of the workers who came from the very same Uttar Pradesh, stated how they are taking credit from the local money-lenders to pay for the gas cylinders only to ensure that the children do not go hungry.


With the recent 'bold' reform measures announced by the government, their life is going to become even more difficult. Reports from Andhra Pradesh show how hard it has become for them to obtain gas cylinders after the government decided to impose the cap on the number of cylinders. According to the blind decision of the government, the mid-day meal workers are using gas for personal needs, so the cap cannot be relaxed. 'All are equal before the law', is a maxim only to rob Peter. When it comes to pay Peter even his rightful, well deserved wages for the hard work, financial constraints, fiscal discipline, blah, blah, all come into play. And for payments to Paul, the HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) in our country, the above mentioned maxim does not hold good.


If you think the mid-day meal workers are left to deal only with cooking, consider again. They are forced to sweep the floors and clean the toilets in the school. Some of our 'considerate' school teachers and staff use them for getting food cooked in their houses. Oh, I forgot to add an important 'if' here. It is only if they are not dalits. Because if you are a dalit mid-day meal worker, even children will be prevented from eating the food that was cooked by them. Such is their exploitation!


Thinking of bonded labour? Bonded labour has been abolished in India, long back, in 1976. Isn't India a signatory to the ILO conventions? It is another matter that many of the signed conventions too are not adhered. But as a responsible democratic country, our government does not 'compel' or 'bind' anybody to 'forceful' employment. As law enforcers, they cannot be found on the wrong side of law. So, they make all the works done by 'scheme' workers, voluntary. They are all volunteers. Anganwadis, out of their own voluntary free will, do all that they are doing, including mobilising for the ruling party rallies. ASHAs do all that they are doing, including paying for the travel expenses of the expectant mothers, out of their free will. Mid-day meal workers clean toilets of the school out of their own voluntary volition. So noble indeed! Only thing is, the government is not volunteering to pay their wages and nobody can bind it to pay them. Anything done against 'free will' in our democratic country is punishable by law!


It is this reason, why the workers are punished when they try to 'impose' on the government and 'coerce' it to act against its 'free will'. When workers themselves are suspended, punished and retrenched, what can one expect for the volunteers? There are no service rules or laws to protect them. So the punishment for them is even more severe. Many workers who took part in the mahapadav were telling how the project officers, district administration officials and in some places even ruling party leaders threatened them from taking part in the protest. Braving all these threats, scheme workers volunteered to be part of the protest and 'coerce' the government into action.


Speaking to them is a revelation. It opens our eyes into their world of steely will and iron determination. Looks can be deceptive – from all their soft exteriors, caring and nursing expectant mothers, growing infants and children – in the mahapadav, we got to see how hardened their resolve is. What else can explain their determination to brave the threats of their superiors and 'powerful' local elites? Who else can brave the extremely energy sapping travel – coming down the winding dusty paths and roads of Himalayas, Vindhyas, Eastern and Western Ghats to the plains, catching a train from there to Delhi, travelling for more than 24 hours in many instances, in unreserved compartments, cramped for space, chilly winds blowing, minimum protection to withstand them, little or nothing to eat...but still having the energy to shout slogans, sing songs, dance and listen to the speeches of the leaders? Can many of us, who yawn after reading a few pages, take a break after working for a few hours, rush for adequate protection against the vagaries of nature, even comprehend these hardships? We can, if we not just empathise with their plight, but realise it. And Mahapadav made many of us realise it.


Mahapadav not only made people realise the problems of these sections of the working class, but also made the government tremble. What else can explain the complete black-out of such a huge protest carried out by the aam aadmis of the country by the corporate media? They preferred to cover the namesakes rather than the real aam aadmi. They know reality bites. So they want to cover it, as long as they can. Act as if nothing as such happened or exists. But ash on hot charcoal is only a cover. Blow them up and you will be burnt by the heat it generates. Mahapadav is a gale, to blow away the ash.