Written By Rohit Parakh
While the mainstream media has focused a lot on the demands of corporate India in Arun Jaitley’s upcoming budget, what has passed under the radar have been the demands of the backbone of India’s rural healthcare – Anganwadi centres and their workers/helpers.
India has had an estimated 12 lakhs child deaths in 2015 (of a total 59 lakhs global deaths) in 2015 and roughly 40% of our children are stunted (a case of chronic malnutrition). Manmohan Singh had rightly called malnourishment India’s “national shame” in 2012. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme is a centrally sponsored scheme of the Government of India working to change the scenario and is implemented through States/UTs. The scheme operates through a network of 13.18 lakh Anganwadi Centres. At present 13.31 lakh Anganwadi workers and 11.59 lakh helpers work at these centres.
An Anganwadi is a government sponsored child-care and mother-care center in India. It caters to children in the 0-6 age group. They provide healthy food, clean water, toilets, immunization to children and expecting/nursing mothers and learning environments for children in poor families. According to government figures, Anganwadis serve over 9 crore children and women. The All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH), a national level body working with state based associations and other organizations all over the country has been aiming to secure better wages for Anganwadi workers/helpers and delivering greater services to the low-income families across India since 2004.
Tens of thousands of Anganwadi workers from all over the country have marched numerous times to the state and central parliaments to strengthen the Anganwadi scheme and fight for the rights of the workers/helpers. Inspite of recommendation from various Parliamentary committees and think-tanks to not reduce the budgets for ICDS, its budget was drastically reduced from Rs 18,108 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 8,245 crore in 2015-16. It is shocking to see the budget reductions given the severity of the situation in child nutrition area for the country.
The Anganwadi workers and helpers are paid a paltry amount of between Rs 3,000- Rs 15,000 and Rs 1,500-10,000 (varying by states/UT’s) ‘honorarium’ respectively. The situation varies significantly with Pondicherry providing the highest wages of Rs 15,000 for Anganwadi workers and Rs 10,000 for Anganwadi helpers whereas in Gujarat, for instance, an Anganwadi worker earns Rs 4,250 and a helper gets Rs 2,100 per month. A Times of India report had previously mentioned that the payment Anganwadi workers receive in Gujarat is less than what a donkey-owner will get by giving the animal on hire (Rs 8,432 a month). President of Maharashtra Rajya Anganwadi Karmachari Sangh, MA Patil said in a press conference on February 12 that – “Because of the budget cuts, funds to pay rent of the Anganwadi premises have not been paid leading to many Anganwadi centres having to be vacated or workers facing harassment from land owners. Also, lakhs of Anganwadi workers across many states have not received wages for the last 5-6 months. Even the quality and quantity of food provided to the low-income families has taken a hit because of the budgets”.
In line with what is seen as another step in government withdrawal from healthcare, the government has signed an agreement to “develop and modernise” 4000 Anganwadis with Cairns India Limited, which is a subsidiary of Vedanta. AIFAWH has strongly condemned what it suspects is the Government’s move to “privatise the Anganwadis” through corporates and NGOs.
Anganwadi Workers And Their Demands
The Anganwadi workers have placed a number of demands to the government – increase in budget allocation to ICDS to the tune of Rs 36,000 crore, stopping privatisation of Anganwadis, categorization of Anganwadi workers as government employees, increase of minimum wage to Rs 18,000 per month (in line with the lowest 7th Pay Commission) and the implementation of 45th Indian Labour Conference recommendations. Mr Jaitley has agreed in his pre-budget meetings to the delegations of Anganwadi workers/helpers that the government intends to spend on ICDS and that the remuneration received by Anganwadi workers/helpers is too little. In case the budget does not meet their demands, the representative organizations have called for a week long protest week across the country by holding demonstrations, dharnas in every village in case these demands are not met in the upcoming budget.
Given that in 2014-2015, the government had a “revenue foregone” (calculated as the sum of concessions of customs duty write-off, excise duty write-off and corporate income tax write-off) of Rs 5.49 lakh crore. The Logical Indian Community hopes that the Government can support the malnutrition suffering children of this country by providing for the Anganwadi and Anganwadi workers/helpers. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be too long before the demographic dividend that India possesses becomes a demographic disaster.