How the Informal Sector Workers made themselves heard: Karnataka Anganwadi Workers Struggle,2015

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Image Credits: All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH)

Anganwadi workers are the backbone of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme that was initiated by the government of India in 1975 to improve the nutritional and health status of preschool children. Yet, they are considered by the policy makers and society not as employees but as ‘volunteers’ or ‘honorary functionaries’ that help tap the potential of reserve labour in the society. Anganwadi workers however resist to be exploited by realising their labour rights. Unionisation of Anganwadi workers was a result of this realisation. Recently, the Anganwadi workers struggle in the state of Karnataka made history, by joining in thousands and marching to Bangalore, blocking every corner of the city with their sheer number and determination. There were approximately 80,000 anganwadi workers in the march on 12th February 2015 demanding the reversal of privatization of Anganwadi Centres, and the fixing of minimum wages of the Anganwadi workers.

The struggle was planned and executed by the Karnataka State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers’ Association affiliated to CITU, Com.S.Varalakshmi (All India Secretary of CITU) and the AITUC led the union in the state. Karnataka has about 61,000 Anganwadi Centres where over 1,20,000 workers and helpers are enrolled as `volunteers’ on honorarium basis. In 1994 when the present CITU union among them was organized their monthly honorarium was Rs.750/- per Anganwadi Workers and half that @ Rs.375/ for helpers. CITU Union adopted various methods of organization and struggle on sectoral basis which led to the gradual improvement of the monthly payment to the current level of Rs.5500/- per worker and Rs.2750- per Helper. Prior to this the demand for a common minimum wage of Rs.10,000/- per month was intensely fought, in 2009, by all workers including Anganwadi Workers, which is referred commonly as the September Struggle.

Neoliberal forces benefit the most when maximum labour force remain in the informal sector with no space for unionisation. However, as the supposedly non-unionised anganwadi workers began to unionise and press for their demands for regularization, superannuation benefits etc. there was a clear policy shift towards privatisation of the ICDS Scheme. Under the first UPA Government there were talks to entrust Anganwadis to Gram Panchayats. Later under the UPA-II government and the present NDA government the thrust is to carry out the Scheme in a Mission Mode. The shift in the policy also lead to a shift in the ownership of the service providers. For example under the mission mode the administration of the scheme and service provision like pre-primary education, nutrition etc are entrusted with NGOs and corporates. This is made very clear by the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitely in the latest budget speech(2015-16). In Orissa the scheme was handed over to Vedanta, the company behind bauxite mining. They are asked to run the scheme using the funds available under corporate social responsibility. Other companies like Britannia has also taken up this challenge. Recently there is also a trend that organisations owing their allegiance to the BJP government are supported to take up the project. In Karnataka the BJP leader Anantha Kumar’s wife’s organization named Adamya Chethana is eying for the scheme. What is never talked about is the impact of government’s withdrawal from the social sector and corporate’s business interests in such endeavours like ICDS recently.

"The Leadership decided to ask all the striking workers to march to Vidhana Soudha on February, 12th. And the response was historic, whereby an estimated 80,000 Anganwadi workers and Helpers marched to Bangalore. Just as the vanguard reached at the point of entry to Freedom Park, they were stopped by barricaded police force. Over hundred feet wide road for more than two kilometers long were full of protesting women workers, the rear getting swelled at the City Railway Station."

Based on an analysis of the current trends, the CITU Union adopted a two pronged strategy of opposing the mission mode and simultaneously making the demand for minimum wages, which the workers worked out to be Rs.15000 at current price. The union drew its strategy and executed it. A series of divisional conventions were organized starting from Jan 12th at Bangalore where apart from CITU & AITUC leaders, literary figures, cultural activists and social service personnel were involved. Such conventions were organized besides Bangalore at Mysore, Mangalore, Karwar, Dharwad, Bellary and Gulbarga. These conventions which were attended massively by Anganwadi workers and Helpers, created a favourable atmosphere among the public and socially committed intelligentia. Regional Jathas by Anganwadi workers were taken out to canvass support of the people throughout the state. The Jathas covered over 3000 Panchayat areas in the state.

The union served the notice of strike and Jathas starting from Feb 2nd at the end of these conventions to District/Taluk Centre. At the same time the demands were submitted to the concerned Minister for Women and Child Development Smt.Umashree along with the departmental officials at Bangalore. Political discussions were made at the Chief Minister’s level as well.

After exhausting all options, the Unions went ahead with the strike from Feb 2nd. Over 50,000 centres were closed during the strike. From Feb 2nd onwards, the striking workers assembled and started 24 hour dharnas in front of DC offices. The approach of the Deputy Commissioners were varying. In certain districts the Deputy Commissioners offered to make arrangements of Community Halls for the women to stay during night. These offers were politely refused. Some Deputy Commissioners organized night lamps toilet facilities etc for the women workers. In some other districts like Karwar etc the approach of Deputy Commissioners was cruel and oppressive such as declaring section 144 etc. The workers heroically faced all these situations. Coupled with the cruel approach of certain deputy commissioners, the Principal Secretary, with encouragement from the Minister tried their best to run the Anganwadis by forcing Mid day meal workers and others to open the Anganwadi Centres. They also served notice threatening dismissals. ICDS officials started phoning up Anganwadi Teachers and threatening their removal. It is under such pressure that the leadership decided on 10th Feb to ask all the striking workers to march to Vidhana Soudha on February, 12th. And the response was historic, whereby an estimated 80,000 Anganwadi workers and Helpers marched to Bangalore. Just as the vanguard reached at the point of entry to Freedom Park, they were stopped by barricaded police force. Over hundred feet wide road for more than two kilometers long were full of protesting women workers, the rear getting swelled at the City Railway Station.

The whole central districts of Bangalore got into a traffic jam. This writer was caught up in the jam at Rajajinagar itself on his way from Mahalaxmi Layout to Freedom Park and had to take gullies to reach Kalidasa Marg, where the workers were finally assembling. They assembled there only after receiving an assurance for the Unions to negotiate with the Chief Minister. The workers were determined to stay any length in Bangalore in the open air if their demands were not favourably considered.

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Image Credits: All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH)

It is after three hours of negotiations that the government agreed to write to the Government of India that the Karnataka Government does not want to adopt the mission mode. Minister Umashree herself came and addressed the workers. With her tactical approach, being an actress, she conveyed at first that she is not against the interests of the women workers. And then step by step she explained how the Government did not favor their strike as it affects the services to be rendered to the beneficiaries. She then announced that the State Government will write to the Central Govt against the ill effects of the Mission Mode. She did this tactfully that missions need be entrusted the task of advising on instruction to the child beneficiaries etc. She then went to announce raising death relief from 20,000 to 50,000. She also assured that there will be some increase effective from 1st April after the next budget. This was heard under murmur and protest. Finally after Comrade Varalakshmi explained to them that the Chief Minister admitted that he had never faced such a successful and difficult to tackle strike all through his political life and that he would favourably consider the demand, the workers were persuaded to end the protest. The decision to withdraw the strike and to re-open the Anganwadi centres from the next day was on a caveat that they will go on strike again if the state budget does not have provision to enhance their wages.

The trade union centers were buzzing with calls on the day the Central Budget was announced, with Anganwadi workers calling from all over the state to enquire whether the government had made provisions to enhance their honorarium. However the BJP government’s commitment to cut short on welfare schemes reflected in the meagre allocation towards the ICDS scheme also. Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley even states that corporates should be empowered and they in turn would support the poor. With the central budget being a disappointment, the unions and the workers are now turning their attention towards the state budget to see whether the state government will keep their promises, if not the streets are for the workers to fight and win their rights.

The author is the President of the CITU State Committee(Karnataka) and a member in the state secretariat of CPI(M) Karnataka