Anganwadi workers have been short-changed by the system
For almost 60 days now, anganwadi workers (AWWs) and helpers (AWHs) in Delhi have been on strike protesting low wages. They have won a partial victory with the Delhi government announcing a doubling of their salaries from Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 9,678 per month for AWWs and Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 4,839 per month for AWHs. However, the workers’ union continues to be on strike demanding to see the Gazette Notification on wage increase as well as immediate payment of wages that have been delayed. The workers’ concerns need to be addressed urgently, not only for their sake but also for the sake of the children and women who are beneficiaries of the government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme.
Anganwadi workers are responsible for providing a number of vital services including pre-school education, supplementary nutrition, nutrition counselling, growth monitoring, and so on. Anganwadis are part of the ICDS, a centrally-sponsored scheme whose norms are set by the Government of India and costs are currently shared on a 60:40 basis (Centre:States). Although AWWs/Hs perform some of the most important services at the frontline level, the central government has always maintained that they are ‘voluntary’ workers and therefore what they are paid is an ‘honorarium’ and not a salary. The honorariums were revised last by the government in 2011 to Rs. 3,000 for workers and Rs. 1,500 for helpers. Many state governments make additional contributions to this amount.
Experts as well as activists have highlighted that these workers are overburdened and underpaid. AWWs/Hs also work under very hostile conditions: infrastructure is poor; the supply of food (through central contracts in most places) is irregular and of poor quality, education material is inadequate, honorarium is delayed and so on. In such conditions what is ultimately affected are the services for young children, pregnant and lactating women.
The issues that the workers are raising in Delhi are relevant to most parts of the country. While a number of state governments have recently increased workers’ wages, this is not enough. The central government needs to step in and ensure that the workers are paid at least minimum wages. Since 2015, the central budget for ICDS has been stagnant and decreasing in real terms.
AWWs have been short-changed by the system for long and the Delhi government must do everything it can to win their trust. They must make all efforts to convince the workers that their concerns are being taken on board. The longer the strike continues the longer young children are denied the food, care and education due to them. It is in the interest of young children and their mothers that this matter is urgently resolved.
India has among the highest child malnutrition rates in the world and poorest learning outcomes. Both these need sustained efforts in improving early childcare services which the anganwadi centres provide. AWWs/Hs are the backbone of this system and their role needs to be acknowledged. If governments are serious about protecting rights of young children, they must respect the role that frontline workers such as AWWs/Hs play. The first step towards this would be to remunerate them adequately.
Dipa Sinha teaches at School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University DelhiThe views expressed are personal