Though institutionally suppressed, Anganwadi workers do work with utmost respect and love

By Nidhi Waldia*

The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) scheme has appointed close to 1.4 million Anganwadi workers in India to act as the face of this aspirational policy aiming to eradicate malnutrition, neonatal and postnatal morbidity. They work with children from birth- 6 years, Adolescent girls, and pregnant and lactating women. The Anganwadi workers have been mandated to work at least 6 hrs a day and at least 300 days a year to be eligible to obtain a meager honorarium of 7500 rupees/month. Though the Anganwadi workers are recruited under the ICDS scheme, they are often expected to disseminate other government schemes. With their everyday tasks piling up, the Anganwadi workers are some of the most overworked and unpaid workers in India.

Even during the stressful times of COVID-19, Anganwadi workers were given the responsibility of serving as frontline workers for India’s fight against the pandemic. They were responsible for conducting daily door-to-door visits to identify suspect cases of COVID-19 and monitor contacts of confirmed and suspected cases daily. Despite having such crucial responsibilities, Anganwadi workers were not paid for 7 months in the Munakot block and 4 months in the Bin block of Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand. Moreover, they were not provided any safety kits, sanitizers, or PPE kits. The workers risked their own health to help the government control COVID-19 and even suffered a severe backlash from their own community. Even when pregnant, Anganwadi workers are many times denied leave because the Anganwadi center is not to be closed in any circumstances. The women responsible for the health and nutrition of lactating and pregnant women in communities are left unattended and overworked even during these crucial times of their own lives.

Moreover, they are to travel long distances for training and meetings, and even though they are asked to apply for travel allowance, many reported that they have never received it. Similar burdens are weighed upon the shoulders of the Anganwadi workers from time to time and they bear it because many Anganwadi workers are, in many instances, the sole breadwinners of their family. However, being plowed over and over by the system compels them to let out a cry for a respectable civil post.

A similar cry turned into a massive uproar in 2016, when Anganwadi workers all over Uttarakhand mobilized to raise voices against the exploitation of their labor. The demands put forward by Anganwadi workers included a permanent civil post, wages as per the Minimum Wages Act, recruitment of supervisors from amongst them, maternity leave, accident insurance and winter, and summer vacations. Despite the 80-day long demonstration, not even one demand rattled its validity into the ears of the policymakers. Adding to the disappointing ignorance from the government, they decided to sabotage the honorarium of 3 months. The Anganwadi workers backed away from the demonstration after 80-days due to the fear of losing more of the already paltry honorarium.

Such cruel means of disseminating the welfare scheme seems counter-productive. The Ministry of Women and Child Development is set to empower women but contrary to its motive, ICDS is exploiting women’s care-work. Moreover, the world’s largest community-based child development program fails to recognize the valid demands of female workers at its forefront. This has also led media houses to deny the Anganwadi workers and their struggles a fair share of attention and response. Moreover, not acknowledging the women who are the backbone of the countries reduces them to just an abstraction and a faceless number running the ICDS program.

Many Anganwadi workers have even banged the doors of the court to receive fair treatment, however, the state responded by asserting that the Anganwadi workers and helpers were not appointed on a pay scale, they are to be paid an honorarium since they are community volunteers.

Even in the face of this blatant dismissiveness of the state, Anganwadi workers do work with utmost respect and love. However, this leaves us with many questions. Would the women’s labor continue being exploited by the state and is there a way out and if so, what it is? Can the community come up with a solution to help their own? and if so, what would the solution be like?

The Mighty Problem of a Mini

While doing my primary research, I went to interview the project officer in the ICDS department of Pithoragarh, I asked him, “Why are only women recruited as Anganwadi workers?” He replied, “Since the ICDS [Integrated Child Development Scheme] come under the Ministry of Women and Child Development which is concerned with the empowerment of women, hence the scheme only recruits women.” I was left wondering that the people in the upper strata of the civil posts are men, and only overworked underpaid workers are females, then how does this scheme empower women. Or is my definition of empowerment different from that of the government. So, are the Anganwadi workers with a monthly honorarium of 7500 INR and Mini Anganwadi workers with a monthly honorarium of 4750 INR empowered. But who is more empowered? I think it’s the Mini-Anganwadi workers since the definition of empowered as per the prior logic extends to the more overworked and more meagerly paid worker.

However, first, let us understand the difference between a Main Anganwadi center and a Mini Anganwadi center. The main Anganwadi Center is to function with two women, an Anganwadi worker, and a helper, while a mini Anganwadi center has only one Anganwadi worker. Moreover, a main Anganwadi worker is given an honorarium of 7500 rupees while a mini Anganwadi worker is given an honorarium of 4750 INR. The number of children in a main Anganwadi center is assumed to be more than that of a mini Anganwadi center. However, there are several cases where the number of children in a mini Anganwadi center is more than that in a main Anganwadi center. Even if the former is true, the amount of work expected from a mini-Anganwadi worker is more than that of a main Anganwadi worker. She not only has to look after the children and facilitate their learning through play but also take responsibility for cooking and cleaning the Anganwadi center. However, though she does double the amount of work as a main Anganwadi center worker, she earned nearly half of her.

The logic of this segregation is quite confusing. Even if the number of children is low, the work expected of a mini Anganwadi worker remains the same, i.e., cleaning the school, bringing children from their homes, morning prayers, free play time, reading writing time, lunch, and breakfast, washing utensils, and so forth. The question that comes to mind is how does one justify the decision to reduce the incentive along with increased workload.

So, a mini-Anganwadi worker is an overburdened and underpaid Anganwadi worker with a near-impossible mandate. Furthermore, despite this, the mini-Anganwadi worker holds herself and her work together and keeps working.

Kiran has a bachelor’s degree in Social Science. She joined an Anganwadi, in hopes of becoming a supervisor after gaining some years of experience. Since the ICDS scheme was launched, it was time and again reiterated that Anganwadi supervisors will be selected from e eligible Anganwadi workers. But, the announcements of the post of supervisor comes under Group C (समूह-ग) in the newspapers.

This is really disheartening to many Anganwadi workers like Kiran. However, the government doesn’t seem to be bothered by its false promises. Kiran has to spend so much time in the works of the center that she doesn’t get time to look after her own children. Kiran is a single mother and the sole breadwinner of her family. The work she does at the Mini-Anganwadi center is costing her time with herself and her family.

She’s ashamed to share the details of her wages with anyone as it is too low. Moreover, she feels that all the Anganwadi centers should have a helper to share the responsibilities of cleaning, cooking and washing.

Click here and here to listen to the plight of Anganwadi workers

*Did project on the problem of Anganwadi workers as a part of the Ideosync UNESCO Information fellowship

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