Anganwadi workers form an important part of the government's rural healthcare delivery mechanism. They look after supplementary nutrition needs of children (of 0-6 years age), educate new mothers about breastfeeding, spread awareness about child growth and development and assist staff of primary healthcare centres attending to expectant and new mothers. The question is while they look after our kids, does the government look after them? Elizabeth Mani explores….
How does a salary increment of Rs. 25 sound to you? These days, one cannot buy even a tender coconut with this kind of money, yet this is the pay hike women implementing the government's rural healthcare schemes for children and mothers get – shockingly, not annually, but once every five years. For thousands of women working as Anganwadi employees in the state, financial security is just a dream.
N Nagalakshmi, 54, had started working as an Anganwadi teacher in 1996 for a monthly salary of Rs. 438. No doubt her salary has increased 10 times in the last two decades, but it still falls short of the Rs. 5000 minimum balance, that the banks demand their customers maintain to avoid penalties. She asks a pertinent question - with banks penalising account holders who don't maintain a minimum balance of Rs 5,000, how can Anganwadi employees survive with a monthly pay less than that.
"When the government increases the price of food items and bus fare, they should also think about our salaries," said the woman who has been an Anganwadi employee for 21 years now. She alleged she hasn’t received her pay for last two months and has had to walk home four kilometres sometimes as she did not have even Rs 14 for the bus fare. Nevertheless, the government has now credited the pending salary.
She said there have often been times when they don’t get paid. She alleged there was a spell a few years ago when they did not receive their pay for nine months. This drove them to stage a protest in 2014. She said they were made permanent employees of Anganwadi Scheme after the protest, but their pay structure is such that this job security doesn't amount to anything. Protesting on the streets was the only way they could make the government notice their plight.
According to the Department of Women and Child Department, Karnataka, there are 68,331 Anganwadi teachers and 62,500 helpers spread across 65,861 Anganwadi centres in the state.
In March, about 10,000 Anganwadi workers from across the state had staged a protest in Bangalore's Freedom Park, determined not to go back until the government increased their pay. They wanted the pay of workers (teachers) to be revised to Rs10,000 a month and that of assistants/helpers to be increased to Rs7,000 a month. The latter's pay at the time was Rs3,500 a month. Lasting four days, theirs was the biggest such protest in the city's recent history. The protest hit the headlines as women camped under the blazing sun, determined not to relent until their demands were met. While they did not get an immediate solution, their demonstration did the job of bringing their hardships to the notice of the people.
Nagalakshmi said there's more to their complaints than just low pay, high expenditure being one of them. She claimed that every month, Anganwadi employees have at least five meetings in different parts of Bangalore and they have to pay for food and travel from their own pocket. If they skip a meeting, they have to face a pay loss.
Jagadeeshwari J, 42, who has been working as an Anganwadi helper for 10 years, rued that many Anganwadi centres don't have toilets. Also, she pointed out that they are not eligible for provident fund or the government's health insurance scheme either. She said the benefit they do get--monthly pension of Rs500 for Anganwadi workers and Rs300 for helpersis barely enough.
Illustrating how low their pay scale works, she said that when an Anganwadi worker goes on maternity leave and a helper has to fill in for her, the latter gets paid a mere Rs50 a month. Further, she claimed they would get only Rs120 to buy a cooking cylinder, which costs Rs751. Also, she said their team leads keep changing every three months and they want them to maintain separate files for each record. This way, she said she ends up paying a lot for files from her own pocket.
Jagadeeshwari lives with her two sons and pays Rs6,000 as rent every month. She said it's her sons, one working as a carpenter and the other as a delivery boy, who are taking care of the household expenses. She said she was worried how she would pay the bills if her sons move out after getting married.
HN Sunanda, state general secretary of Anganwadi Naukarara Sangha (affiliated to CITU) said that of the 65,000 Anganwadi centres in the state, about 25,000 operate out of rented rooms or community halls and many of these places don't have a toilet. She said that after their protest in March, the government has agreed to build toilets, which has come as a relief.
In the state budget announced earlier this year, the government indicated that it had decided to increase the pay of Anganwadi workers and helpers by Rs1,000 and Rs500 respectively. In the aftermath of their protest, the government further hiked it by Rs1,000 and Rs500 in the second week of April. Now, a worker's pay is Rs8,000 and a helper's Rs4,500. Sunanda said Anganwadi employees were happy after this pay hike, as the previous governments haven't gone beyond increasing their pay by more than Rs250-Rs500 at a time.
Additional Labor Commissioner T Srinivas said it was sad that these women had to take to streets to get the government to hear their problems. He pointed out that while these women do work hard, they are not government employees, technically speaking, which is why they are not entitled to the benefits of government schemes.
A senior official from the Department of Women and Child Development said they were aware that Anganwadi workers' remuneration was low and needed a revision. He said earlier the reimbursement for medical expenses was Rs20,000 and Rs10,000 for the workers and the helpers respectively, but now it has been increased to Rs50,000 for both. He said toilets and compound walls are being built at the Anganwadi centres that didn't have them and a gas connection has also been provided.
The officer contended that starting this year, Anganwadi workers are getting a lot of facilities and have had a pay hike twice. He said since they are honorary workers, the question of their "salary" being sufficient or not doesn't arise. He added that as it is, the state government has ensured they get more than what the Centre has allocated for them.
Anganwadi workers form an important part of the government's rural healthcare delivery mechanism. They look after supplementary nutrition needs of children (of 0-6 years age), educate new mothers about breastfeeding, spread awareness about child growth and development and assist staff of primary healthcare centres attending to expectant and new mothers. They also have to help with polio vaccination drive and discharge duties assigned by the state government and the local panchayat from time to time.
Despite their crucial role, these foot soldiers have felt overlooked for long and still don't enjoy the status of a government employee. Even as the state government has offered them some relief this year, the Anganwadi employees are expecting that their other issues too will be heeded and duly addressed.
CITU state vice-president Prakash K, said, “Increasing the salary of Anganwadi workers was just a temporary measure. The pay hike is not the end. Some workers were satisfied as it is much better than their old salary. But there are other issues too which the government should consider."
”Anganwadi workers are under the ICDS which doesn’t guarantee their jobs. When the central government decides to cancel the scheme all these Anganwadi workers will be jobless. We want the government to consider it as a regular government programme." he added.
(Elizabeth Mani is a Bangalore based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)