In the scorching heat, travelling through the narrow lanes of Jafrabad in North East Delhi, Nooruddin Nisha plays many roles, sometimes distributing pamphlets, checking the status of voter registration and distributing election related material. She is an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme in Delhi. Over 21,000 women like her are part of the programme in the city. During elections, thousands of these women workers work around the clock, behind the scenes, constituting the backbone of Indian democracy.
“There are over 25 lakh women across the country, working in the ICDS services as ASHA workers and helpers. Many of them are also working as Block Level Officers, managing the everyday tasks to make elections possible,” said Kamla, general secretary of Delhi Anganwadi Helpers’ Union, affiliated to the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH) and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
One of the workers, Afroze said, “I am a helper, cooking for the children, organising functions and ceremonies, and managing the local Anganwadi centre. When I wake up every morning, I have only one prayer – I hope I don't lose my job and the centre does not shut down.” She added, “Now that the election season is on, we are being pulled to distribute pamphlets, gather crowds for the rallies and work on the ground at the behest of political parties, only to realise that a day may come when the same political parties shut down our centres in the blink of an eye, leaving thousands of women like me jobless.”
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Many ICDS centres in Jafrabad have shut down in the last five years. Originally meant to provide food and a safe space for children, the centres now face their biggest challenge - privatisation and government apathy.
Kamla explained, “The BJP’s policy from the beginning has been a hand-in-glove approach with the big corporates like Akshaya Patra. The scheme has witnessed enormous fund cuts, and the Centre is leaving no stone unturned to make this categorically clear that they want to shut down the centres. Even their election manifesto states so.”
On being asked about the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party, she said, “The two parties are not very different. We had given chances to the Congress but they put the scheme in the mission mode, eventually hoping to shut it down. That’s why this time we are supporting AAP. We want the Kejriwal government to stand with us in our struggle and our movement, because the BJP’s loss is very important for us.”
To woo voters in Jafrabad, the Congress has fielded former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, the Aam Aadmi Party has fielded spokesperson Dilip Pandey and the BJP has fielded Bhojpuri singer Manoj Tiwari, banking on his celebrity quotient.
None of the candidates have raised the issue of Block Level Officers, or even the scheme workers and helpers, despite nationwide protests, completely sidelining their demands.
In February this year, over 40 lakh signatures of women workers and helpers from across the country were collected as thousands marched on the streets of Delhi to demand better wages with many being paid as less as Rs. 4,000 per month for working around the clock. Kamla added, “Our biggest obstacle is that we are not even recognised as workers in the first place. Anganwadi workers were being asked to perform multiple duties which include election surveys, block level tasks and more, while being paid only a pittance.”
The Modi government had in October promised the workers increased minimum wages on the occasion of Diwali, however, nothing was implemented on the ground. In keeping with his trend of false promises, the central government in March declared that the minimum wages of the Anganwadi workers and helpers have been increased. However, no concrete arrangements were made for the same in the interim union budget presented this month, which compelled the workers to take to the streets yet again.
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