Workers and helpers are demanding an increase in their honorarium and full-time employment status.
“Kejriwal ki kohl di pol, mehengai pe halla bol.” Expose Kejriwal, protest against inflation.
This is what Lalita shouted along with other anganwadi workers in Delhi, as they came out to protest against the Delhi government. For the past week, anganwadi workers and helpers have been camped outside Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s home, wearing red shawls as a symbol of their sisterhood.
The protest, led by the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union, has one major demand: a substantial increase in their honorariums. Workers told this reporter they’re considered “volunteers” and not government employees, so they receive honorariums, not salaries.
At present, anganwadi workers in Delhi receive a monthly honorarium of around Rs 9,600 and helpers around Rs 4,800. They’re demanding an increase to Rs 25,000 and Rs 20,000, respectively. A similar strike had been held in 2017 for 58 days.
“It’s been three years since we got anything from the state government or the central government,” said Shivani, president of the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union. “Now, we are asking for an increase as well as the arrears due for the last three years.”
The “main demand”, Shivani said, “is to achieve employee status”.
“Many of my sisters have been working for decades,” she said. “But today too, they are treated as only volunteers, which deprives them of insurance, ESIC and other benefits.”
The protest comes at an awkward time for the chief minister, as he’s currently campaigning in other states for the Aam Aadmi Party ahead of the assembly polls. The AAP is banking on its “Delhi model” to garner votes. In Punjab, Kejriwal has promised to credit Rs 1,000 into the accounts of “all women” in the state.
But, as one of the protesters, who works as an anganwadi helper, said, “We women don’t want anything for free. We request our CM to increase our honorarium. We do not want free bus rides, electricity or water. What we want is self-respect which we will get if we become financially stable.”
Some of those gathered have even accused the Delhi government of sabotaging their protest, claiming “bus drivers were not stopping” when they saw the women holding their flags, waiting to board.
“We anganwadi workers lay a strong foundation for the health system,” said Lalita, who has been in the job for 10 years. “We come under the ministry of women and child development. But unfortunately, there is no development for us, the women in anganwadis. With such little income, it is hard for us to earn the respect of society as well as our family.”
Lalita said she holds a postgraduate degree in social work and has not received a promotion in the last 10 years. “Our salary is too low for us to be able to afford good clothes,” she said. She also pointed out the work that anganwadi workers had done during the pandemic, despite there being no healthcare system to protect them.
“Masks, PPEs, sanitisers and other basic facilities were not provided to us amid this pandemic,” she said. “At such a time, how can we think this government will provide us good healthcare services?”
Anganwadi workers and helpers also spoke about increased work pressure and hectic schedules, which puts severe strain on their work-life balance and morale.
“Suppose an anganwadi worker goes on long leave,” said Shivani, an anganwadi worker from Burari project. “In this scenario, her work is given to us. But you can’t imagine what we are paid for the extra work; we are paid Rs 200 only. This is how they make a mockery of our hard work.”
Others told stories of exploitation, such as Savita, who has been an anganwadi worker for the last 17 years.
“We receive calls at midnight and our supervisor asks for a meeting at odd hours,” she said, adding that she works nine hours a day. “Above all, we are now also asked to deliver rations. A bag full of ration weighs around 10-15 kg and many of my sisters are more than 40 or 50 years of age. After all this exploitation, what we receive as an honorarium is nothing compared to our expenses.”
There are other issues too. In 2019, the Delhi government issued smartphones to the workers and registered them on the Poshan app, developed to track data related to child nutrition and other services provided by anganwadis. The idea was to “leverage technology” by providing real-time information – but it hasn’t worked out that way.
“Kejriwal gave us these smartphones,” said Sumitra, an anganwadi worker. “Do you know how long a smartphone can survive? These phones have now become old and slow...The app is slow and full of glitches. It is frustrating to wait a whole day to see this app while working under pressure from our seniors. I can’t tell you how we manage our daily life with this stress. I have a family of six members. My mother-in-law and father-in-law are both unwell. In this situation, I have to look after my family and work. Sometimes I work for 12-17 hours a day because of this app.”
‘Paid less, and also paid late’
Helpers told this reporter that they battle their own issues.
Manisha has worked as a helper for the last 11 years. When she took up the job in 2011, she was paid a monthly honorarium of Rs 1,200. She is the sole breadwinner in a family of five members.
“I have sold all my ornaments for the treatment of my mother-in-law,” she said, when asked how she manages. “My husband met with an accident and it shook me to the core. He is bedridden for two years now. With no savings, I had to take a private loan for his treatment.”
About her children, she said, “One of my sons left school because of financial stress, but my other son is graduating. I want to see him stand on his own feet. I cannot forget the time when I was selling tea after anganwadi hours to support my family. We are not only paid less, but we are also paid late. At times our honorarium is credited after a gap of 24-25 days.”
Anita and her mother Jaivati told this reporter they both work as anganwadi helpers. Anita took up the job in 2007. She got married in 2013 but her husband died in 2018. So, she took a break from work and then rejoined as a single mother with two children.
“I pleaded with my officers to promote me and told them my story,” she said. “It is very hard for me to handle my family as a single mother with this small sum of money. But they refused my request, saying I have a gap in my years of service. I am the sole earner in the family. I have to pay rent, school fees and buy other necessities for the family. It is hard to manage the expenses with this small amount. Now, I have started taking private loans to run the circle.”
For now, the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union plans to send a team of 10 women to poll-bound states like Goa and Punjab to campaign against the AAP. They will seek help from local anganwadi unions in this regard. They also hope to dent political parties in the upcoming MCD election.
When asked whether the workers are in talks with the government, Shivani said, “Many of the workers are receiving messages of mass termination by the department. From this, you can understand the department’s stance...We will stand for the rights of the downtrodden section of society.”
A version of this report was first published in the Patriot.
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