People's Democracy

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


No. 20

May 16, 2010

Do You Know What It Takes To Be A Anganwadi Worker?


G Mamatha


I WAS full of emotions as I was writing this. I was angry, I was happy and I was inspired. A whole range of emotions were in play. I was angry – at the government, at the media. Happy, that so many women workers had come to Delhi, braving many hardships to protest the government inaction. Inspired, because of their - resolve to struggle, determination to fight, courage to fight adversities and will to overcome whatever obstacles that may come up in their way. I heard their stories, if you can call their life a story. If their life is a story, every page in it would be illustrated with struggles. Struggle for survival, fighting the might, burning their blood and sinews. All of this to ensure that the future of the country is safe and sound.

I am talking about the more than 20,000 anganwadi workers who had come to Delhi representing lakhs of their sisters. 20,000 people coming to Delhi and organising protest demonstrations is not something new. But Delhi had never seen 20,000 women workers coming to protest for realisation of their demands. Delhi had never seen 20,000 women sit on the road for more than 24 hours and warning the government to ignore them at their own peril. This is what happens when workers, women workers, working hard to death decide they have had enough.

Overworked, terribly underpaid and mistreated, the anganwadi women came to Delhi to remind the government of its promises and demand it to show them the respect they deserve. They were here on the call of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers. These 20,000 individuals, coming from 20 states and speaking as many languages were united in their demand: “Provide pension, gratuity and provident fund to all anganwadi employees; pay minimum wages; regularise anganwadi workers; save ICDS from privatisation..." It is this that had bonded them together in the two day mahapadav held on May 4-5.

Just in front of the Jantar Mantar, where they sat in protest is a five star hotel which sees a steady stream of customers – both to dine and dance. For them these protesting women who had stayed on the street are 'crazy', a 'bloody headache' an 'irritant before the party'. “They spoil our day, and now even our nights! Oh No! My Gawd, somebody stop this” rued one among them. Intoxicated with money, they look down upon them as flies, and think that the world would be better without them. Alas, all their study, knowledge and the intellect they have acquired does not teach them a simple fact – it is these workers that make the world and not the other way round. Brushing off 'this irritant', they go inside the hotel to spend, “come on yaar, without a minimum of 10K (10,000) would I go inside...after all it is not every day that you come”.

Shanta Ghante from Gulbarga district of Karnataka, one of these 20,000 women was seen eating jowar roti, which she had cooked and packed 3 days earlier as she could not afford to buy food. For the thousands sitting in front, for those 'crazy' women, 10K is more than their seven months wages. India shining, dining and dancing for some while India suffering, starving and struggling for many! For the former eating is fun, for the later it is struggle. And it is the simple realisation of this fact that brought them here braving many adversities.

Standing for nearly 28 hours in a very crumpled space in the train, huddled with other comrades-in-arms, N Bhagyam travelled all the way from her village in Prakasham district in Andhra Pradesh to attend the mahapadav. She says, “The prices of all basic food items are touching the sky, while our honorarium (yes, the government 'honours' them so does not give them salaries) is touching the paatal in real terms. We don’t even get our wages regularly. We feel very fortunate if we get them at least once in six months. How do we eat, how do we feed our children, how do we send them to school and how do we survive, in such situations? The government does not care to understand our problems.” The union government pays an 'honorarium' of Rs 1,500 and Rs 750 per month to the anganwadi workers and helpers respectively. For her, the hardships she had endured while coming to Delhi are nothing compared to what she endures throughout her life. For us 'standing', 'crumpled space', are 'hardships', for her it is a journey to a better life!

Concurring with her, Kaushalya from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh says, "We provide a vital front-line service in remote rural areas. Every other employee under ICDS scheme is recognised as a government employee and receives government benefits, except for us. They call us social workers or part time workers, despite the fact that we often work longer than full-time workers, our work begins at 7 am and continues till late in the night, sometimes up to 10 pm.  Sometimes, we even work on Sundays. The government says our services are voluntary and honorary, to deny us our due wages and exploit us”.

Hanging a title of 'honorary' and 'voluntary' work around their neck, the government robs them of the minimum wages. Forget all those glossy advertisements, the truth walks in front of you in every village and town, if you dare to question. “If the government is serious about arresting child morbidity and mortality, why does it treat the grassroot functionary with such apathy”, other workers from the state ask.

Esther Rani from a village in Bihar says, "The panchayat is given the responsibility of releasing the honoraria. This enables panchayat functionaries to exercise control over the workers. Some of them, including the sarpanchs and CDPOs took "percentage" from the workers as a precondition for releasing their honoraria, of about Rs 5 for Rs 100.”

Sudha Khedule from Nagpur asks, “Why a retirement age of 60 is stipulated for us, when we are considered social workers. The government should regularise us as employees and give us social security benefits.” Sarla Meshram from another village in Maharashtra says, “We get honorarium once in six months. We borrow money from Saukar who charges exorbitant interest rates, to meet the basic expenses incurred during the days when we are not paid. The government should take measures to release our money regularly every month.”

Vasanthi from Vellore in Tamilnadu asks, “Why are we denied government employee status when we are entrusted with almost every government responsibility at the village level. We do the work for 36 registers, including immunisation under the pulse polio programme. We are required to promote small savings and group insurance, form self-help groups, conduct surveys to identify below-poverty-line families and diseases such as leprosy and phylariasis, and even help in cattle census. Under the ICDS, we are required to work for four hours a day but usually we put in ten to twelve hours given these extra responsibilities. We get no holiday or leave apart from the statutory government holidays. Worse still, we are summoned at any time. The government does not pay us a single paisa for the extra amount of work we do".

Phul Devi from Jodhpur in Rajasthan says, “There are not enough buildings for anganwadi centres. If we carry on activities from our homes, we are not paid any rent. If we hire a place in the village, the government only pays an amount of Rs 200. These days, nobody rents a house for such a paltry amount. Houses are rented for not less than Rs 800. The extra amount incurred for paying the rent is borne by us. The government should build pucca houses for anganwadi centres.”

Champa Devi, an anganwadi worker from Jallandhar in Punjab says, “In spite of our high social relevance, job security eludes us. Many of us are deserted, separated or widowed middle-aged woman, who work right in the midst of the village community. In the absence of proper service rules, we face many cases of sexual harassment by the panchayat pradhans, when we are asked to get the pradhan's signature to get our honorarium or annual leave sanctioned. This is one of the reasons why we are opposing the handing over of the management of anganwadi centres to the panchayati raj and nagarapalika institutions ". Experience had taught them that it is only through struggle that they could achieve anything. They reminded that even their meagre wages have reached their current level only due to the long-standing struggles of their union.

The National Advisory Council of the UPA-1 government had estimated that Rs 17,000 crore is required to universalise the ICDS, and another Rs 16,500 crore if the workers are to be regularised. This is still only 0.6 per cent of GDP. Also, by using anganwadi workers as "unpaid labour" for various tasks unconnected with the ICDS, the government is already saving Rs 1,000 crores! And if only the government would restore the tax:GDP ratio to its 1990-91 level, it could fully provide for the ICDS, the midday meal and employment guarantee schemes. This UPA government led by the Congress says it has no resources for making provisions for this allocation, but on the other hand, in the current budget itself, it has doled out Rs 80,000 crore as tax concessions to the big corporates. This is more than double the amount required to meet the demands of anganwadi employees. Clearly, it is the lack of political will and not the resources which is responsible for the present state of affairs.


With their patience growing thin, these women workers had come to Delhi, the seat of political power, to remind of peoples' power. Their indomitable spirit earned unprecedented respect. Their action inspired many and renewed the belief that wherever workers rise in consistent struggles, they would definitely win the world. They reminded everyone that women are not just a tough lot, but a mighty force to be reckoned with.