Wednesday, 22 November 2017

‘THE heart of the city comes to a standstill!’, ‘Stranded Vehicles’, ‘Total traffic jam between 12 and 3 pm’, ‘Women Squatting right in the middle of Road in front of Freedom Park’, ‘A Deluge of People’ – these were some of the screaming headlines in the print media in Bangalore on February 13, 2015. Not lagging behind, electronic media joined the chorus by beaming the event right from noon!

WHAT WAS THE EVENT?
It was a massive, unprecedented rally of anganwadi workers and helpers with anger writ large on their faces and who, with a mere two days’ advance notice, had descended on the capital from all the 30 districts across the state to lay siege on this city of big capital and international monopoly. The militant rasta roko by this human sea for more than four hours sent the central part of the city into a spin and even after more than 10 hours normalcy could not be restored.

Such was the collective fury of this massive gathering of women! And the media reports put the number at more than 40,000! Of course, the actual gathering was much more than that.

WHY THIS STRUGGLE?
Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is the only scheme that is part of government’s efforts at fighting the problem of malnutrition and as such is complementary to human resources development. A scheme of long standing and working effectively too! However, in 2012, instead of further upgrading it, the government, in line with its dutiful adherence to neo-liberal economic agenda, converted it into a ‘Mission Mode’ model, thus seeking to dilute its effective functional role. This Mode mandates allotment of 10 per cent of the ICDS projects to NGOs and another 10 per cent to panchayat institutions. Further, a mere 15 per cent of the centres would be receiving governmental grants for constructing offices and the rest 85 per cent would have to depend on community financing. It also provides for distribution of grants to private convents from out of the funds allocated for pre-primary education. And all this in the name of ‘restructuring of the scheme’ !

Apart from this Mission Mode, there are already several recommendations aimed at dismantling of the scheme itself.
In Karnataka, the working hours of the anganwadi centres have been increased from four and half to six and half hours. The workers and helpers are asked to perform jobs under various non-governmental schemes like Stree Shakthi (women’s self –help group), ‘Bhagyalakshmi’ and also some non-departmental jobs like economic census, population census, elections etc. But the honorarium being paid to them is far less than even minimum wages. As a result, the ICDS is affected and for this, workers are increasingly being blamed.

There are 61,000 anganwadi centres in the atate. Of these, only 57 per cent have their own premises. The rest function either from rented accommodation or in temples, community centres, and youth association offices and from anganwadi workers’ homes even.

While shifting the centres from rented accommodations, these workers are required to shift the food supplies too. On several such occasions they have been falsely accused of trying to steal these supplies and have had to face public wrath leading to false complaints, resulting in immediate filing of FIRs and subsequent suspensions without a formal enquiry. There are no service conditions providing for their reinstatement in service.

At the time of recruitment, the district collector and the chief executive officers of the zilla panchayat function as president and vice-president and as such they themselves constitute the disciplinary authority also. Due to several practical problems, anganwadi workers and helpers quite often find it difficult to work according to the mindset of such IAS officers. There are instances of inhuman acts of on-the-spot-removal from the job in case the officers during their visit find silliest of lapses on the part of the workers and helpers.

Whenever a deputy director, or a child development project officer or a supervisor is transferred, workers have to present them with gifts in the form of gold. For transfers also such gifts are a must.

While performing departmental jobs, workers face assaults from the public. For instance in KR Pete taluk of Mandya district, a worker had to suffer the ignominy of her saree being pulled by a drunkard in front of children in the centre. In the same taluk, in another instance an anganwadi worker had complained to the CDPO that a child marriage is being planned. That gentleman went to the spot and divulged the name of the worker which resulted in the village panchayat imposing a fine of Rs One lakh on the poor worker!

Naturally the workers and helpers reeling under such inhuman conditions at the workplace found themselves driven to the wall and they decided to move collectively once again.

THE DECISION FOR STRUGGLE
For three months, Karnataka Rajya Anganwadi Noukarara Sangha prepared an extensive ground work with a three days’ state level study camp; a round table meet with progressives and intellectuals in Bangalore; held zone-wise conventions and seminars at Mysore, Bangalore, Gulbarga, Hubli and Mangalore and thus widely campaigned against the dangers of privatisation of ICDS and on the issues of the employees. In the seminars, eminent personalities like Chandrakala, central committee member of Kannada Sahithya Parishat; Chandru Poojary, economist; Aravind Malgathi of Mysore University; Manjula Manasa, chairperson of Women’s Commission; Vinaya Okkunda and Dr Rajendra Udupa, progressive writers besides senior leaders of CITU, JMS, DYFI, SFI, KPRS (AIKS) participated. Vehicle jathas were simultaneously taken out in 88 taluks and public meetings were organised in 2500 gram panchayats. Auto campaign and street corner meetings were organised in 108 towns. It is to be noted that the speakers in all such meetings were anganwadi workers. More than eight lakh pamphlets were brought out for beneficiaries, anganwadi workers and for both commonly, and were widely distributed. More than 45,000 posters were put up throughout the state. And through all this it was ensured that Stree Shakthi women, ICDS beneficiaries and general public extended their support to our cause.

In the midst of our preparations, the AITUC union came forward to join the struggle. The indefinite strike commenced on February 2, 2015 with day and night mass squatting in front of 27 DC offices and also at Freedom Park in Bangalore where the participation was by three districts in Bangalore and concluded on February 12, 2015 with a massive Bangalore Chalo programme.

ATTEMPTS TO SUPPRESSAND BREAK THE STRUGGLE
Usually such long drawn struggles dwindle after the first two days, but in this struggle, the participation only multiplied with each passing day. Of the total 61,000 centres, more than 55,000 were closed. Alarmed over this great show of strength and resoluteness, the government tried to create ill will against the striking workers by blaming them of putting the health of women and children at the risk. It egged on the district collectors to take stringent measures against the workers. The Uttar Kannada DC promulgated Section 144 and served show-cause notices to all the workers. Bidar DC had planned to declare the strike as illegal, have a police lathi-charge on strikers and then to arrest all. Hassan DC did not allow erection of tent and the determined workers squatted under the trees, day and night for 11 days. The Chamrajnagar DC went a step ahead and denied water, electricity and even toilet facilities to the striking workers.

On February 6, 2015, the officials of Women and Child Development department convened a meeting of all deputy directors and directed them to make alternate arrangements to run the 55,000 anganwadi centres.

The minister of the department, Uma Shree through advertisements in the media, instructed all to report for duty immediately. On February 9th and 10th, all DCs and deputy directors convened meetings of midday meal, ASHA and Stree Shakthi workers and urged them to run the centres. It is indeed heartening to note that their agenda failed miserably. In places where coercion was used, the workers, especially Stree Shakthi workers protested vehemently, walked out of meetings and joined the striking workers!

Despite being headed by Siddaramaiah as CM who prides himself as a staunch friend of the down-trodden, the Congress government in the state used all its power and machinery to suppress the struggle.

TALKS WITH THE GOVERNMENT
On the basis of 29 demands placed before the government, joint talks had been held on January 31, with the officials of the department. On the very first day of the strike itself, the minister of the department had visited the venue of struggle. As there was no clarity on the part of the government in their response to the demands, the talks did not yield any results. In the background of the massive show of strength and the collective anger of the striking workers, the chief minister had to intervene and in a meeting that lasted for 45 minutes, assured that the central government would be informed that the state cannot allot 10 per cent of anganwadi centres to NGOs as mandated under Mission Mode and further that the demand for increase in honorarium would be considered in the budget session and efforts would be made to address other issues.

Thereafter the minister of the department arrived at the venue of the struggle and after conveying the decisions of the government, requested the workers to end the strike. It was only after this that it was decided to conclude the struggle.

More than 1,00,000 workers and helpers from across the state took part in this struggle. It was supported by G V Srirama Reddy of CPI (M), V J K Nair and S Prasanna Kumar of CITU, leaders of KPRS (AIKS), DYFI, SFI, JMS and AIAWU. Countless cadres of the Auto Rickshaw Drivers Union and the SFI worked as volunteers all the 11 days. The struggle was led by S Varalakshmi, president, H S Sunanda, general secretary and T Leelavathy, Shantha Ghante, Yamuna Gaonkar, Kamala and other office bearers of the union.

S Varalakshmi / M R Shenoy