People's Democracy

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


No. 04

January 26, 2014


ICDS Workers & Beneficiaries to jointly

Fight against ‘ICDS Mission


K Hemalata


IN a unique demonstration of unity, the workers employed in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) of the Government of India and the beneficiaries of ICDS have decided to jointly fight against its privatisation in the name of ‘ICDS Mission’. The beneficiaries of the scheme are women and children mostly from poor families of agricultural workers, peasants and unorganised sector workers. While the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH) has taken up the struggle on behalf of the anganwadi employees, the beneficiaries are represented by the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU), All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). After a national workshop in Delhi, joint state level conventions have been organised in several states. In some states, district level conventions have also been held. Signatures on a memorandum to the prime minister are being collected with a target to collect five crore signatures from the anganwadi employees as well as the beneficiaries.


The move to privatise ICDS gathered momentum after the prime minister lamented that the high incidence of malnutrition among our children was a ‘national shame’. He made this statement in a meeting organised by a corporate NGO to release a report of its survey on malnutrition. (This NGO is now involved in the supply of supplementary nutrition to anganwadi centres and mid day meals to schools in several states) He declared that the government could no longer ‘rely solely’ on ICDS to fight malnutrition and would look for ‘alternate modalities of service delivery’. The government at the same time would restructure ICDS. It turned out that in the name of restructuring, the central government which now implements the ICDS, would become a mere ‘agency’ that ‘creates the necessary conditions for local communities and local governments to take ownership and management of anganwadi centres’. The minister for women and child development made it clear in her reply to a question in parliament. She said that the state governments were given the autonomy to ‘entrust whole or part of the ICDS projects to a voluntary organisation including NGOs for which grants would be provided to them by the concerned state government/ UT administration’.


Thus the government is handing over the responsibility of child development, of providing nutritious food, pre-school education and other services, to the private sector, to the NGOs, self help groups etc. ICDS projects are also being handed over to big corporates in the name of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. What should be an automatic right of all citizens delivered by public agencies is now being converted into a ‘charity’ by private companies to help their image among the people at public cost.


The government also published a document explaining the changes in institutional, infrastructural, management and delivery systems of ICDS. It has already started implementing these changes all over the country. What is to be noted is that despite the grand talk of community participation, involving all stake holders etc, the government at no stage of evolving the policy, consulted the most important stakeholders - the organisations of agricultural workers, peasants, unorganised workers and women who comprise the beneficiaries and the organisations of the anganwadi workers and helpers who implement ICDS at the grass root level. The major national federations of anganwadi employees wrote to the government several times demanding that the government should discuss with them before making any changes in the ICDS. AIFAWH, AIAWU, AIDWA, AIKS and CITU together wrote letters requesting that they, as the main stakeholders in ICDS should be consulted before finalising any changes in it. But, instead of discussing with them the government held discussions with international NGOs like the US based CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), the US agency USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the World Bank in the name of ‘development partners’. The ICDS Mission document contains several recommendations made by the World Bank in 2006 on the occasion of thirty years of the ICDS. This, in itself, indicates that the UPA government is more committed to the international financial institutions and US imperialist agencies than to the people of this country.


Before going into the changes being made in ICDS through the Mission, it will be pertinent to first note that the major causes for the miserable nutritional status of our children and women are poverty, unemployment, very low wages, illiteracy, lack of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities particularly in most of our villages and the slums in the cities, lack of access to health care etc. Sixty seven years after Independence, inequalities have increased so much that while the rich in our country can afford the lifestyle similar to the richest in the world, the conditions of most of the poor are no better than that of the animals cohabiting with them in the urban slums and villages. According to Global Hunger Report, hunger was at ‘alarming’ levels in 12 out of the 17 states where the survey was conducted and ‘extremely alarming’ in Madhya Pradesh. India stood among the 29 countries with highest levels of hunger while our ruling classes dream of a position alongside the richest countries in the world.




This situation of ‘national shame’ is not because our people are lazy, unwilling or unable to work, learn and improve their conditions and the conditions of their children. It is because of the path of development that the ruling classes have been pursuing so far. Inequalities have further widened, the conditions of the people have further worsened under the neoliberal trajectory. NSS data show that calorie consumption particularly for the bottom half of the population has been declining.


ICDS was launched more than 38 years back under the 20 point programme of Indira Gandhi with the aim of improving the nutritional and health status of pregnant and lactating women and children below six years of age and to help in the physical, psychological and social development of children. The government of India claims that it is a unique programme for child development in the whole world.


This is probably true in one sense. India is probably the only country in the world where the government does not consider that the provision of services to ensure safe reproduction, and basic nutrition and health to mothers and small children, to ensure healthy development of children, its future citizens, as its basic responsibilities. These services are provided through ‘schemes’ which are by nature not permanent and universal. They are treated as some largesse provided by the government not as the rights of its citizens. Besides, ICDS is flawed from the beginning because the workers who provide these services at the ground level are not even recognised as workers. They are called ‘social workers’ and paid a pittance as ‘honorarium’ just to avoid payment of minimum wages and other benefits. This is not only a disgrace to the workers but also devalues the programme. Besides there was no provision in the initial design of ICDS for even minimum infrastructure facilities like pucca buildings, water, toilets etc for its effective implementation. The government also extracts unpaid labour from the anganwadi employees by forcing them to do so many jobs at the local level unrelated to the ICDS like conducting scores of surveys, preparing reports, work as Booth Level Officers for the Election Commission etc it becomes impossible for them to attend to their main responsibilities in the anganwadi centre.


Despite these limitations, ICDS has contributed in bringing down severe malnutrition and the very high incidence of infant mortality in the country. Several studies including by the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (NIPCCD), National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) etc found that ICDS was effective in bringing down severe malnutrition, increasing the rate of immunisation, improving school enrolment and bringing down school drop outs. This could be achieved because of the commitment and dedication of the anganwadi workers and helpers, a reference to which was made by K Venugopal, former secretary to the prime minister in a report on a study conducted by him on ICDS. The government was also compelled to recognise this when the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee called them the ‘backbone’ of ICDS. In fact, through their struggles to improve their own conditions they have also brought the ICDS into focus, making people aware of the services provided through the anganwadi centres. This may be a factor in forcing the government to continue the scheme for so many years and also helped in creating popular pressure to universalise ICDS. The Supreme Court had noted the importance of ICDS in the overall development of children and ordered that the Government of India should universalise it to cover all the children in the relevant age group in the country. The AIAWU, AIDWA, AIKS and CITU too demanded universalisation of ICDS.


Despite all this pressure, the process of universalisation was extremely slow. Even now, when the government claims to have sanctioned 14 lakhs anganwadi centres to cover all the habitations, large number of centres have not been made operational. Thousands of posts of anganwadi workers and helpers remain vacant. 37% of the children in the eligible age group are not covered by ICDS even today. 3.11 crores of these children do not have any anganwadi centre in their locality. The coverage is particularly low in some states with high incidence of poverty and hunger like Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. Many localities, particularly those inhabited by dalits, tribals and minorities have no anganwadi centres.




The financial allocations made by the government to ICDS and the lackadaisical way it is implemented also prove the total apathy of the government towards the scheme. While the revised plan outlay for ICDS in the 11th Five Year Plan was Rs 72877.52 crores, the budgetary allocations for the period were only Rs 37,891 crores, i.e., only around half of the allocation. The amount necessary for universalisation of ICDS according to the existing norms (without any increase in the remuneration or other benefits to the anganwadi employees) was estimated to be Rs 2,58,000 crores. But only Rs 1,77,456 crores has been approved for the 12th Five Year Plan period, even when the government is implementing it in the ‘mission mode’, ostensibly to ‘strengthen ICDS’. Out of this, the allocation for 2013-14 was only Rs 17,770 crores!


This meagre financial allocation is naturally reflected in the functioning of the anganwadi centres. A report by the CAG based on a performance audit of ICDS reveals this. The report shows that 61% of anganwadi centres do not have their own building; another 25% were functioning from Kutchha / semi pucca buildings or partially open structures. 40% -60% do not have separate spaces for cooking, storing and for children’s activities. 52% do not have toilets; 32% do not have drinking water; 33% - 49% do not have medicine kits; 53% did not receive the annual flexible funds; pre-school kits were not available in 41% - 51% centres.


Concealing this half-hearted and callous approach in ensuring the effective implementation of ICDS and deflecting the attention of the people from the policies that perpetrate malnutrition, the government is now trying to totally withdraw from its responsibility of child development. It wants to transfer this responsibility to the private sector on the pretext that ‘ICDS could not meet its objectives’.


The restructured ICDS under mission mode envisages ‘important role for civil society networks, NGOs, community based organisationS, institutions and voluntary action groups. It has been mandatory to hand over 10% anganwadi centres to these organisations including the corporates. Thousands of anganwadi centres in Odisha, Rajasthan and other states are being handed over to big corporate houses like Vedanta, Airtel, JP Group, ITC etc. In addition another 10% will be handed over to panchayat raj institutions. These agencies will be given flexibility to re-appropriate the budgetary provisions according to their own priorities.


Financial allocations from ICDS will also be made to private nursery schools ‘in order to strengthen the concept of Early Childhood Care and Education’. With education becoming one of the most profit making businesses rather than a service under the neo-liberal regime, this would enable siphoning off public money to the private educational institutions. The focus of ICDS is moved away from providing supplementary nutrition to providing mainly ‘nutritional education and counselling’. Supply of supplementary nutrition is being handed over to NGOs in the name of community participation. In several states like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi etc it has already been handed over to NGOs like ISKON, Naandi Foundation and some local NGOs..


The conversion of ICDS into the Mission mode with its thrust on privatisation will deprive lakhs of children and women of the few services related to supplementary nutrition, immunisation, pre-school education etc that they were receiving free from the anganwadi centres.

Such a move by the government to privatise and dismantle one of its major interventions to curtail malnutrition can be resisted and stopped only by developing a strong countrywide movement involving all sections of the people concerned with it. The AIFAWH has been fighting against privatisation of ICDS since the last around two decades when the government first started its attempts to hand over the ICDS projects to NGOs. It has also been trying to involve the beneficiaries in the struggle through joint campaigns with AIAWU, AIDWA and AIKS. Because the struggle against privatisation of ICDS is not only a struggle of the anganwadi employees for their rights; it is a struggle for the right of our children for overall development. It is a struggle to ensure that India comes out of the dubious distinction of a country with the largest number of malnourished children. It is a struggle to ensure that the full potential of our children as healthy future citizens is realised for real development of the country. This struggle has to be strengthened with the active involvement of all the organisations concerned.


It is also necessary to strengthen such joint struggles to protect the other such benefits available to the children of our country like the Mid Day Meal programme. The government is already in the process of handing over the job of cooking mid day meals to big NGOs like ISKON, Naandi Foundation, Akshaya Patra etc which have large centralised and mechanised kitchens capable of cooking lakhs of meals at a time. The joint struggles of the workers and beneficiaries of these programmes, all of whom belong to the toiling sections of the society, will alone be able to push back the attempts of the government to withdraw from welfare measures. In turn this will strengthen the struggle against the neo-liberal policies.