Struggle against the coupon system

The Haryana government has given the responsibility of preparation of supplementary nutrition to the Self Help Groups (SHGs). The SHGs, the village level committees (VLC), the panchayat members, all interfere in the functioning of the anganwadi centres; the anganwadi worker has to make all of them happy to get the centre going. All of them demand ‘something’, thus the new system has become one of decentralised corruption. The poor children, pregnant women and lactating mothers are deprived of the supplementary nutrition. The anganwadi worker, who is the convenor of the group in whose name the money is deposited, is left with the option either to join in the corruption and share the money or get victimised.

33 anganwadi workers were terminated on the spot by the CDPOs on charges of misappropriation of funds; proceedings were initiated for the recovery of the money, ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakhs; there are several incidents of attacks on the anganwadi workers and helpers by groups of villagers with vested interests; there have been many occasions when village women in groups fight each other on petty matters and ultimately blame the anganwadi worker – this is the plight of anganwadi workers and helpers in Haryana. It exemplifies the result of the so called ‘reforms’ in the ICDS scheme.

The Anganwadi Workers and Helpers’ Union, Haryana has been trying to bring these problems to the notice of the authorities, in different ways. In the meantime, the state government has introduced a ‘coupon system’ in the anganwadi centres. As per this system, coupons for three months would be distributed to the beneficiaries of supplementary nutrition. If a child has to get the supplementary nutrition, it has to bring the coupon, number wise. The anganwadi worker has to collect all these coupons and get them countersigned by the Sarpanch and present them to be audited by the department! The state government decided to implement this system was from 15th August 2008.

The union made several representations to the state government when it came to know of its decision to introduce the coupon system. But the state government did not respond and went ahead with its decision. There was no other option for the union but to go on with its struggles. The union decided to hold a two day protest dharna in front of the Directorate of ICDS at Chandigarh on 13th and 14th August 2008.

Despite a call of road block by the BJP on that day, hundreds of anganwadi workers and helpers from Bhiwani, Jind, Karnal, Hissar, Gurgaon, Mewat, Faridabad and Yamuna Nagar gathered in front of the ICDS office and participated in the dharna. They demanded the withdrawal of the coupon system and the reinstatement of all the anganwadi employees terminated from their services. An appointment with the chief minister was assured by his Officer on Special Duty, but the dharna continued on the next day with more than 2,000 anganwadi employees participating from different districts.

Both the director and the Commissioner were absent from the office. The Deputy Director was willing to talk to the union, but the agitating anganwadi workers were in no mood to talk to her. The Director talked to the union leadership on the telephone and said that she was unaware of any representation from the Union and their protest, and said that she is willing to talk to the union on 19th August. The union insisted on the immediate withdrawal of the coupon system and reinstatement of the terminated workers pending enquiry.

On 19th August, the union delegation met the Director, but she was not ready to withdraw the coupon system, and asked the union to try it for two months and agreed to review it then. The Union declared that it will not implement the coupon system at any cost and called upon all anganwadi workers and helpers to boycott the coupons. This received overwhelming response from the workers, thereby making the coupon system a failure.

The Union decided to join the all India general strike on 20th August 2008, highlighting the issue. The anganwadi workers and helpers all over the state responded to the call by massive participation.

These struggles forced the other unions, which had earlier congratulated the government for forming the VLCs for supplementary nutrition, also to go into action against the VLCs and coupons.

On 13th September, a state convention was held, to decide the future course of action. More than 500 delegates from all over the state participated. The Convention resolved to carry forward the struggle. The anganwadi employees marched fearlessly through the streets of Rohtak up to the Police Commissioner’s residence to submit a memorandum to the CM; this was just a few days after the police fired on the ‘guest’ teachers in Rohtak, killing a woman teacher.

The government officials tried their best to force the Union to defer the convention. One day before the Convention, several officers of the department including the Director repeatedly called up the Union leadership with requests to defer the convention. At the same time they were not ready to give any concrete assurance.

An appointment was fixed with the Director on 15th September. In the meeting the Director assured the delegation of the Union that the government was ready to withdraw the coupon system, and agreed for a fresh enquiry into the cases of the victimised workers. But she gave only verbal assurances.

Later, on 18th September, the Minister for Social Welfare called a meeting of the Unions to discuss the issue. The minister agreed to the demands of changing the system of VLCs so that it does not affect the anganwadi employees. The Minister also conceded the demands related to promotion to the supervisors posts, maternity leave etc and requested for time to complete the administrative procedures.

But, the minister requested the unions to implement the coupon system for three months so that there would not be any audit objection to the expenditure incurred for printing and distribution of coupons. The other unions agreed to this and suspended their agitation, but the CITU Union objected strongly to this and said that it would continue with the boycott of the coupons.

The state committee of the Union decided to organise a signature campaign on the demands and to hold district level conventions from 23rd to 30th September and district level demonstrations in front of the DC office from 6th to 12th October. Demonstrations were held at the district level, which called upon the anganwadi employees to send back the coupons to the offices of the project officers/ Upayuktas. Since the anganwadi workers refused to receive the coupons, in many places, the bundles of coupons were dumped at the anganwadi centres. The anganwadi employees took out rallies and threw the bundles of coupons back at the CDPO’s office. Lathi charge was held on the anganwadi employees demonstrating in Bhiwani.

The Union’s call for boycott got tremendous response from the anganwadi workers and helpers, who got disillusioned with the VLCs and other changes made in ICDS. Nowhere in Haryana, was the coupon system implemented. This has given tremendous confidence to the Union as well as the anganwadi workers and helpers.

As the next stage, the union planned to organise a joint rally along with the supervisors and statistical assistants working in the Social welfare department on 20th March 2009. Actually, the supervisors were also under tremendous pressure due to the changes in ICDS. Their workload has also increased and since there was a ban on new recruitment, the vacancies were not filled. This has tripled their burden. There was an incidence of a supervisor committing suicide due to the workload.

The Union went ahead with the campaign among its members as well as the public. By the time, in February 2009 the state government announced an increase of Rs 1,000 for the anganwadi workers and Rs 500 for the helpers. The Union made efforts for the immediate release of the relevant government order and the payment of the enhanced honorarium at the earliest. The GO was released on 27th February 2009.

The rally at Chotu Ram stadium in Rohtak on 20th March 2009 was a great success with around 5,000 anganwadi workers and helpers, supervisors and statistics assistants pouring in from 23 districts. A joint memorandum was submitted to the chief minister.

The Union announced that the continuous struggles by the Union forced the state government to declare an increase in the remuneration and that in practice there was no coupon system; but the union would intensify the struggle on all the other demands including regularisation, welfare fund, social security benefits etc.

This struggle and the victory, helped the union to establish its leadership among the anganwadi workers and helpers, emerging from the blow of organisational disruption it received only a few years back. The Union is planning to consolidate and expand its influence through planned activities.

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