The All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers has always visualised the Integrated Child Development Services programme as a very important government intervention in fulfilling its responsibility of ensuring the rights to food, health and education of the children of this country. It has launched several nation wide campaigns and struggles on the demand to institutionalise ICDS along with the demands of the anganwadi employees like regularisation of their jobs, enhancement of their remuneration, provision of social security benefits etc, since 2004.
It has organised a national convention on ICDS in April 2005 at Delhi. Eminent economists, trade union leaders, experts and activists working in the field of child rights, leaders of several mass organisations participated in the convention and extended their support to these demands. Thousands of AIFAWH members all over the country collected around one crore signatures on a memorandum to the Minister for Human Resource Development of the Government of India, focussing the above demands. A delegation of AIFAWH submitted the memorandum to the Minister.
AIFAWH initiated continuous struggles both at the national level as well as in the states on these demands, soon after its fifth conference in Bangalore.
Lakhs of anganwadi workers and helpers participated in big demonstrations in the state capitals under the leadership of the state committees of AIFAWH on 18th April 2006. This was followed by the historic ten day mass relay hunger strike in Delhi in July – August 2006.
Mass Relay Hunger Strike
For ten days from 25th July 2006, it looked as if the area surrounding Jantar Mantar in the heart of the national capital was under the siege of the anganwadi employees who stormed into the city to voice their demands. Around 20,000 anganwadi employees from 22 states – Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Puducherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and West Bengal participated in the ten day mass relay hunger strike.
The trade union movement of the country has many heroic struggles to its credit. It has organised several strikes in which hundreds of thousands of workers have participated; it has organised massive mobilisations in the national capital on the demands of the working class. But this form of struggle in which every day nearly two thousand workers sat and slept on the streets for 24 hours till the next batch came to take over from them, was unprecedented in the history of the trade union movement of our country. It was inspiring to see the determination with which the anganwadi employees continued their struggle in spite of the heavy rain that lashed the capital for the first three days and in the hot sun that followed. The continuous rain, the leaking tents and the wet carpets could not dampen the spirit of the anganwadi employees; neither could the scorching heat burn out their determination.
The struggle received wide support from different sections of the people. Besides the leaders of the CITU, leaders of several other trade unions including those in insurance, banks, state government and central government employees, medical representatives, BSNL and other public sector undertakings, organisations of the workers in the unorganised sector etc greeted and congratulated the fasting anganwadi employees and extended their solidarity. Leaders of mass organisations of kisans, agricultural workers, women, youth and students extended their solidarity. Progressive artists from Jana Natya Manch regularly visited the pandal and performed street plays. A group from Jana Sanskriti also came to greet the delegates.
The support received by the Left MPs and the Left led state governments was particularly noteworthy. Brinda Karat, Tapan Sen, Basudev Acharia, and several other Left MPs raised the issue in both the houses of Parliament. Many MPs irrespective of the political parties to which they belonged, associated with the issue. Sitaram Yechury, MP led a delegation of AIFAWH and CITU leaders to the Prime Minister and also followed it up by writing letters. Every day 4-5 MPs from the CPI (M) visited the dharna and extended their solidarity. The MPs of CPI (M) also collected the signatures of more than 70 MPs on a memorandum to the Prime Minister requesting him to consider the demands of the anganwadi employees favourably.
The Chief Minister of Kerala VS Achutanandan and some other ministers in his cabinet including PK Shrimati, minister for women and child development, visited the fasting anganwadi employees and extended their support. The Chief Minister of Tripura, Manik Sarkar, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to consider favourably the genuine demands of the anganwadi employees. Prakash Karat, General Secretary of the CPI (M) also visited the fasting anganwadi employees and demanded that the government fulfil their genuine demands.
The struggle led by AIFAWH outside the Parliament, the wide support that it received from the mass organisations along with the pressure from the Left Parties inside, forced the Prime Minister to concede that the demands of the anganwadi employees were genuine. He acknowledged the importance of ICDS, but committed as he was to the World Bank dictated policies of privatisation and liberalisation, he gave no assurance on the regularisation of the anganwadi employees. His assurance of a ‘parting gift’ to the anganwadi employees who were being removed from service on attaining 58 – 60 years, in lieu of ex gratia as demanded by the AIFAWH, has not been implemented to this day. It took 2 years for the government to fulfil his assurance of increasing the remuneration.
As no concrete action was taken by the government to fulfil the assurances given by the Prime Minister in August 2006, the AIFAWH decided to organise a ‘Chalo Parliament’ programme on 8th May 2007. The participation of the anganwadi employees in this march to Parliament surpassed the expectations of the AIFAWH, which actually decided to concentrate on the mobilisation of anganwadi employees from the neighbouring states, with nominal representation from the other states. Anganwadi employees came in large numbers even from states as far as Assam, Karnataka, Kerala and Orissa in addition to the Hindi speaking region and the strife torn Kashmir.
It was estimated that around ten thousand anganwadi employees participated in the rally. They jumped the police barricades and courted arrest. The entire space in the Parliament Street police station, where they were kept for several hours was swarming with the arrested anganwadi employees. Many had to force themselves up to the balconies of the police station. Several trucks carrying anganwadi employees from Haryana were still pouring in even after the programme was over.
The Federation tried to meet the minister for women and child development and inform her about the restlessness among the anganwadi employees due to the non-implementation of the Prime Minister’s assurances. But the callous attitude of the government was evident in the reply given by her office that the minister was too busy to lend an ear to the poor anganwadi employees who came from all over the country to make their grievances heard.
A delegation of AIFAWH managed to meet the Prime Minister under the leadership of Brinda Karat and Tapan Sen, MPs on 10th May 2007 but was dismayed at the Prime Minister’s reply that he could not recall his earlier assurances and would talk to the concerned minister. AIFAWH decided to intensify the struggle further.
Magnificent All India Strike
The working committee of AIFAWH gave a call for a one day all India strike on 10th July, which was regularly being observed as all India Demands’ Day. It has called upon all its members to close the anganwadi centres on that day and organise rasta rokos, processions, dharnas, rallies and burning of effigies of the government at the project level wherever possible and at the district/ state level, according to the concrete conditions in the states.
The response of the anganwadi employees was magnificent. Hundreds of thousands of anganwadi workers and helpers all over the country closed their centres and participated in protest demonstrations against the apathetic attitude of the UPA government towards their long pending demands. While the membership of AIFAWH at that time was around 3 lakhs, around 8 lakh anganwadi employees in the country participated in the strike. In several states they had to face severe police repression.
For the first time, the anganwadi employees from Jammu and Kashmir participated in the strike led by the AIFAWH. Thousands of anganwadi employees assembled in Sher – i – Kashmir Park in Srinagar and marched towards the Lal Chowk. The police burst tear gas shells, used water cannons and resorted to brutal lathi charge to stop the anganwadi employees from marching ahead. More than 200 anganwadi employees were injured and more than 20, including Hasina Sophie, the president of the union were arrested. Maimuna Nazki, general secretary of the union and around 35 others had to be hospitalised. Many more fell unconscious. The entire attack was conducted by male police who abused and misbehaved with the anganwadi employees. But none of this could deter them. The employees fought back bravely and not a single employee left the scene.
The significant feature of this strike was that anganwadi employees who were members of other unions and those who were not members of any union joined the strike in large numbers. The anganwadi employees not only closed their centres, but came out in larger numbers than ever before, to participate in the demonstrations.
Another important aspect was the support of the beneficiaries and the common people in the anganwadi centre areas. In most of the states, the anganwadi workers conducted meetings of the people in the area, particularly the beneficiaries, to explain their demands and seek their support. In many states, the beneficiaries wholeheartedly extended their support to the struggling anganwadi employees. The demand to make the ICDS a permanent service was appreciated by the beneficiaries and others.
2 Crores Signatures Collected
As the government took no concrete measure to meet the demands of the anganwadi employees, the AIFAWH decided to collect signatures, including from the beneficiaries, on a memorandum to the Prime Minister and submit it in a mass deputation in Delhi on 18th February 2008.
Even as delegations of AIFAWH led by MPs met the Women and Child Development Minister and the Secretary of the department and letters were written by MPs to the government, AIFAWH simultaneously made elaborate preparations for collection of signatures.
The activists of AIFAWH distributed leaflets explaining the importance of ICDS and the need to strengthen it, the miserable ‘honorarium’ and the working conditions of the anganwadi employees and the injustice meted out to them by the government. They visited the beneficiaries individually as well as in groups, conducted group meetings of the women and sought their support by signing on the memorandum. They were encouraged by the support they received from the beneficiaries. They also received the support of some of the organisations representing the beneficiaries like the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union, All India Democratic Women’s Association, All India Kisan Sabha and of course, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. Around 2 crores signatures were collected on the memorandum addressed to the Prime Minister.
March to Parliament on 18th February
A deputation consisting of around 1,000 volunteers in red and white uniform ensuring token representation from all the states was planned to submit the memorandum carrying the 2 crore signatures, to the Prime Minister on 18th February 2008.
But, the response from the anganwadi employees was overwhelming. On 18th February 2008, in a unique procession, more than ten thousand anganwadi workers and helpers in red and white dress, the red flags of CITU in their hands and the red caps of AIFAWH on their heads, marched on the streets of Delhi, from the Ramlila Maidan to Jantar Mantar. But, the Prime Minister, who never finds any dearth of time to meet delegations of the big business and corporates, did not have any time to meet the delegation of the anganwadi employees who came from all corners of the country. Angry at this apathetic attitude of the government, the participants burned an effigy of the Prime Minister at Jantar Mantar.
Increase in Remuneration
The central trade unions too put pressure on the government demanding that Rs 12,000 crores from the Budget be earmarked for ICDS in the Budget of 2008 – 09, out of which not less than Rs 2,500 specifically allotted to enhance the remuneration of the anganwadi employees.
Ultimately, the Finance Minister with much fanfare announced an increase of Rs 500 for the anganwadi workers and Rs 250 for the helpers in his Budget speech in 2008. The allocation for ICDS was too meagre to ensure its universalisation. It took the government more than 8 months to release the concerned Government Order.
Against World Bank Policies
On the one hand the UPA government was submitting affidavits on complying with the orders of the Supreme Court on universalising ICDS; on the other, it started negotiations with the World Bank for assistance for implementing the ICDS IV ‘Reforms’ Project, incorporating most of its recommendations in line with its philosophy of withdrawal of the state from welfare benefits.
AIFAWH has initiated a massive campaign to create awareness about the disastrous impact of the changes that the government already started implementing even before the ICDS IV project was formally launched. The attempts to privatise ICDS in the name of Public Private Participation, handing over the management of anganwadi centres to the Self Help Groups, Mother’s Committees, Community Based Organisations, NGOs and Panchayats, to shift the financial burden by making the state governments to pay 10% of the total expenditure on ICDS initially to be increased to 50% gradually etc were explained in a booklet. How the handing over of the supply, preparation and distribution of food to the SHGs, Mothers’ Committees etc, handing over the Pre School Education to the Parents’ Committees would ultimately lead to the dismantling of the ICDS were also exposed. The draft booklet prepared by the AIFAWH centre was translated into local languages and more than 2 lakhs booklets and folders were printed in different states. 10th July 2008 was observed as ‘Save ICDS’ Day throughout the country. Lakhs of anganwadi employees participated in the all India general strike on 20th August 2008 highlighting their demand to ‘Save ICDS’.
AIFAWH also organised a workshop to discuss the implications of these changes in detail and decided to organise a wide campaign to ‘Save ICDS’ by involving the beneficiaries.
Joint Convention to Save ICDS
In an attempt to involve the beneficiaries, the AIFAWH approached the most vocal organisations of the agricultural workers, poor peasants, women and unorganised sector workers, who constitute the beneficiaries of ICDS, like the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union, All India Democratic Women’s Association, All India Kisan Sabha and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
A Joint National Convention was organised in Delhi on 22nd October 2008, with these organisations. The Convention unanimously adopted a Declaration that demanded universalisation of ICDS, opposed its privatisation in any form and also demanded improvement in the conditions of the anganwadi employees, who are the most important functionaries of ICDS. The Mavlankar Hall in Delhi was packed with the anganwadi employees and representatives of all these organisations. Such joint conventions have been held in several states and also in some districts and projects in some states.
Struggles Result in Improved Conditions
The militant struggles by the anganwadi employees all over the country during the last several years, in which AIFAWH played a significant role, led to some improvement in their remuneration and working conditions. While very few state governments paid any remuneration to the anganwadi employees from their state budgets a decade ago, now almost all the state governments barring one or two, pay some monthly remuneration, as is shown in the accompanying table. In Puducherry, through sustained struggles aided by the specific conditions in the state, the Union could achieve regularisation and even application of the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations. In some states, the struggles led by the Unions affiliated to AIFAWH resulted in the provision of some welfare benefits like ex gratia at the time of retirement, pension, and some other welfare benefits.
The ever increasing prices, increasing working hours etc no doubt tend to neutralise this increase, particularly in the states where the state government do not pay anything or pay only a meagre amount, leaving the conditions of the anganwadi employees, as they were. But, it is also to be noted that without these hard won increase in remuneration and benefits, the conditions would have been further deteriorated.
But of even more significance is the recognition gained by the anganwadi employees through the struggles led by the AIFAWH and its affiliated Unions. The anganwadi employees, who were looked down upon, particularly by the administration and many sections of the society, due to their low economic status, have come to be recognised as a militant fighting force. Their role in the general trade union struggles is lauded by the trade union and democratic movement in almost all the states. These struggles also enabled to highlight the importance of ICDS in child development.
Increase in the remuneration of Anganwadi employees 1998 - 2008
Despite achieving some increase in remuneration and welfare benefits in some states, the major demand of the anganwadi employees – of regularisation as Grade III and Grade IV government employees, is yet to be achieved; social security benefits including pension, gratuity etc are yet to be achieved. The government’s attempts to dismantle ICDS under the mask of terms like community participation, Public Private Participation etc continue.
The AIFAWH is conscious that it is very difficult to ‘Save ICDS’ and it is impossible to achieve the demand of regularisation, unless the policies of heaping concessions on the rich and curtailing the few benefits and subsidies provided to the poor, are reversed. AIFAWH is aware that this struggle against the anti people and anti worker policies of the government is a long drawn struggle and has to be carried along with all the other trade unions and mass organisations fighting with the same objective.
And AIFAWH is determined to carry forward this struggle by uniting all the anganwadi employees in the country into a rock like strong organisation and making them an integral part of the struggle for alternative pro people policies.