On the third and final day of the historic workers’ mahapadav in Delhi, thousands of women ‘scheme workers’ dressed in their characteristic sarees assembled at Parliament Street angrily demanding recognition as regular workers with better wages and benefits. These workers consist of anganwadi workers and helpers, mid day meal cooks, health workers called ASHA (for rural areas) and USHA (for urban areas), and workers in several other schemes of the govt. Along with para teachers in schools and workers in schemes like ANMs, livelihood mission workers, etc. the total number of scheme workers in the country is a staggering 1 crore (10 million).
What binds these workers is that the govt. obstinately refuses to accept them as ‘regular’ workers, classifying them as ‘volunteers’ working in ‘schemes’. What this means is that they are denied regular wages, being dependant on a minimum pittance with additional incentives or payments based on what work they fulfill. They also are denied any social security cover usually given to regular govt. employees. This state of affairs was initiated by the UPA govt. during its tenure, and it has been enthusiastically continued by the present Modi govt.
In fact, the Modi govt. has unleashed a series of measures to curtail all these schemes by cutting funds, roping in NGOs for taking over anganwadis, PHCs etc. and increasing workload on these hapless ‘volunteers’.
If you look at the workday of a typical ASHA or an anganwadi worker, the gross injustice of it all becomes crystal clear. An ASHA is supposed to be check out the health condition of all residents of villages under her jurisdiction – ranging from one big one to even five smaller ones. That is about 5000 people at least. She makes daily rounds and dispenses immediate medicine or other attention. In cases of expecting or nursing mothers she is the main person in charge of health and safe delivery, esorting the woman in labour right up to the labour room, wherever it is. ASHAs are also supposed to handle contraception methods, immunization of children and dispensing of routine campaign medication like polio drops or de-worming tablets. She is to keep complete record of all activities in dozens of registers, besides attending meetings with every authority in the area.
Anganwadi workers and helpers supposedly attend to infants at day care centres only but their work extends beyond that to pre-school education for young kids, looking after pregnant and lactating women, dispensing nutrition, etc. Mid day meal cooks not only cook the food but help in procurement of food items, cleaning of schools, and any odd jobs required in the school.
Can any of this be done in a part-time volunteer mode? The govt. and its bureaucrats sitting in Delhi seem to think so. They have entrusted some of the most important duties of caring for the people, especially children, to women – naturally! – and assumed with typical patriarchal arrogance that this does not require full payment.
Anganwadi workers and ASHAs/USHAs have been fighting for their rights for many years and faced brutal repression in many states. Only recently, they submitted 10 lakh signatures by residents of villagers supporting their cause to the women and child ministry. Yet the govt., blinded by neo-liberal dogma of not increasing govt. expenditure for welfare of people, continues to ignore them. This has caused deep anger and a rising demand for bigger actions to force the govt.’s hand.
That is why they not just assembled at Delhi for the workers’ mahapadav, but gave it a characteristic militant edge with their full throated slogans and pithy critiques.