The Karnataka Rajya Anganwadi Noukarara Sangha, the Union affiliated to AIFAWH in Karnataka, launched several militant struggles against handing over the anganwadi centres to the Panchayats, for the enhancement of remuneration, for social security benefits like pension to the anganwadi employees etc.
One of the remarkable struggles during the recent period was against the privatisation of the supply of nutritious food.
Earlier, the nutritious food to the anganwadi centres was supplied by the office of the Child Development Project Officers (CDPOs). The food was prepared in the anganwadi centres by the anganwadi helpers and distributed to the beneficiaries. But on the pretext that many anganwadi centres in the state did not have own pucca buildings with provision for cooking, the state government decided privatise the supply by handing it over to the mid day meal centres in some places and to ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in others. In some districts they have already started distributing the food.
As soon as the Union came to know about this, it gave a call for project level demonstrations. Thousands of anganwadi employees participated in these demonstrations and opposed the privatisation of food supply. In several places, press meets were organised to explain the adverse impact of the measure. A delegation of state leaders met the Minister and the concerned officers and submitted memoranda demanding immediate withdrawal of the order. As the state was under President’s rule at that time, a massive ‘March to Raj Bhawan’ was held on 18th March 2008 in which thousands of anganwadi employees from most of the districts in the state participated. The state government was forced to withdraw the circular. It assured the Union that food would be continued to be supplied through the Women and Child Welfare department.
On the same day, in the meeting in the presence of the Governor, the government also agreed to increase the remuneration paid by the state government to Rs 750 per month for anganwadi workers and Rs 375 for helpers. A formula for payment of pension was also worked out. The state government also agreed to provide a subsidy of Rs 35,000 to the anganwadi employees for construction of houses. But, the BJP government, which came to power after the elections, refused to put this understanding on pension to the anganwadi employees, into practice.
The state government did not abandon its plans to privatise the supply of food to the anganwadi centres. While it had to withdraw the order on supply of food from mid day meal centres or ISKON, it issued another circular on 3rd June 2008 handing over the supply of food to the Self Help Groups run by the state government (or the Stree Shakti Groups, as they are called in Karnataka). The state government argued that this was necessary to comply with the orders of the Supreme Court. The anganwadi worker was made the secretary of the committee constituted along with the SHGs’ representatives.
In Karnataka, most of these SHGs are actually being utilised by the politicians to further their interests; some represent the interests of the local landlords and rich and work as pawn brokers. Though the SHGs are involved in several schemes of the state government, the benefits do not reach the poor, Dalits and other socially backward and economically poor sections. Handing over the supply of food to the anganwadi centres to such SHGs in the name of women empowerment does not make any sense.
The SHGs constituted with poor women save every paisa from their meagre incomes and deposit it in the banks. They have to invest the entire month’s saving of the SHG to supply food for the anganwadi centre. If this food is for any reason rejected, their entire savings would go waste. Nobody would reimburse that money. Besides, most of them being poor and illiterate, they are not aware of the accounting procedures; they cannot produce the required vouchers etc for the food materials supplied by them. It will be very difficult for them to go round the CDPO’s office to collect their money; they would have to incur additional expenditure for their travel. These were some of the practical questions for which the state government had no satisfactory answer.
Besides, there was no guarantee that the food materials would be supplied to the anganwadi centres on time and in the prescribed quantities. As many of the SHGs are connected to the local political leaders and moneyed sections, the anganwadi workers find it almost impossible to challenge the SHGs about the quality, quantity or the regularity of the supply. While the distribution of the supplementary nutrition to the children would suffer, the harassment on the anganwadi employees would increase. The implementation of the ICDS itself would be hampered.
Hence, the state committee of the Union decided to oppose the move tooth and nail. Along with launching independent campaign and struggle against the move of the state government, the Union also took initiative for a joint struggle with the other unions of anganwadi employees in the state, to oppose handing over supply of food to the self help groups. A joint memorandum was submitted to the state government. The Secretary of the Social Welfare department called a joint meeting of all the unions. But in the joint meeting, only our Union totally opposed the move. The AITUC suggested implementation of this on experimental basis first in one project. But we did not accept this position. The Secretary threatened that if we wanted increase in remuneration and pension, we must give up this demand. We were not cowed down by this threat. So, the discussions broke down.
The leaders of the other organisations agreed for a separate dialogue and said they would consider the matter. But with great difficulty we were able to bring them together again and organised joint project level demonstrations on 7th July 2008; but further efforts for joint meetings were not successful. Ignoring the strong opposition, the government was determined to implement the circular. The Secretary of Women and Child Welfare travelled throughout the state and addressed area wise meetings of Stree Shakti groups to ensure that its directions were carried out. He tried to instigate the SHG members against the anganwadi employees saying that they were opposing the government’s moves for economic uplifting of women.
Some women’s organisations and NGOs also questioned our opposition to the efforts of the government to provide economic self reliance to the lakhs of women in the SHGs. Our Union had to counter these arguments and patiently explain to them about the real intentions behind these measures of privatising the anganwadi centres and the consequences. The Union conducted a wide campaign to create this awareness among the people.
Under these circumstances, with the advice of the state committee of CITU, a ‘Vidhan Soudha Chalo’ was organised by the Union on 15th July 2008. There was magnificent response from the anganwadi employees. More than 10,000 anganwadi employees from all corners of Karnataka participated in the march. The Minister came to the dharna in the evening with some vague proposals but was categorically told that the struggle would continue until the government order was withdrawn. A joint meeting was arranged at 12 noon on the next day.
But on the same day the Union came to know about some derogatory remarks made by the Secretary against the Union and advising the Minister that no concrete steps need to be taken. The Union immediately planned to enter into the Director’s office near Vidhan Soudha to lodge its protest. Thousands of anganwadi employees entered the office and held demonstrations.
Suddenly heavy downpour started which continued throughout the night. The tent in which the anganwadi employees were sitting collapsed due to the heavy rain. The police refused to provide any help on the plea of the heavy rain. But none of these deterred the anganwadi employees who continued their struggle fully drenched in the rain going without food or sleep.
Ultimately the state government was forced to withdraw the order though temporarily. This struggle has immensely enhanced the prestige and influence of the Union in the state.
Many people, including some trade unions of the anganwadi employees in the state were of the opinion that this struggle could not succeed. But because of proper planning and leading a militant struggle, for which the anganwadi employees in the state were fully prepared, it was possible to achieve success.