Arrests, barricades and barbed wire fences, ultimatums, and even the invoking of the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) – nothing has stopped the relentless protests by around one lakh anganwadi workers in Andhra Pradesh who have been on strike from December 12.
The long standing demand for better pay and working conditions have spurred the anganwadi staff to protest not just in the cities but also in towns and mandals throughout the state. In an election year, the determination of the protesters in the face of blatant suppression by the government is causing consternation for the ruling YSR Congress Party (YSRCP).
The anganwadi staff are demanding Rs 26,000 as salary, gratuity, paid medical leaves, recognition of mini workers as main workers, retirement benefits, and pension. Currently they are paid Rs 11,500. Trade union leaders say that the protests are a continuation of earlier ones. Babu Rao, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that anganwadi workers have waited for four years for their demands to be fulfilled. “The government has three months ahead of elections. Any party can form the government. However, it was the YSRCP that gave the assurance (of increasing wages and giving benefits) during the 2018 election campaign and it has to fulfil it before the elections. The party cannot make the same promise for this election."
Following multiple rounds of fruitless negotiations with the activists, the state government issued an ultimatum to the anganwadi workers to end their strike. The protesters ignored the deadline and remained set. On January 3, thousands of workers who planned to hold a rally to District Collectorates across the state were arrested by the police. At the Collectorate offices, police were deployed in large numbers. Barricades and barbed wire fences were erected to deter anganwadi workers from entering the premises. As the workers began raising slogans, they were swiftly detained. At least a thousand anganwadi staff have been imprisoned in Vijayawada alone, alleged Gajalaxmi, a member of the Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union (affiliated with the CITU).
On December 27, tensions erupted at Dharna Chowk in Vijayawada as anganwadi workers attempted to protest outside legislators’ homes, demanding that the government take up their concerns. The police, after a heated argument with protesters, detained several union leaders and employees.
Former Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president N Chandrababu Naidu visited the protest site on December 30 where anganwadi workers had been holding a dharna in his constituency and declared his support. He expressed dismay over the government’s lack of action and criticised the YSRCP government for its indifferent approach to the issue.
Gratuity, health insurance, and other demands
Apart from increase in pay, anganwadi workers and helpers also seek the implementation of the Supreme Court order in April 2022, which stated that anganwadi employees are entitled to gratuity under the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972. The anganwadi staff also want employment for the family members of workers who died while in service. They also want health insurance made available to them.
Workers are also seeking an increase in the budget and the quantum of ration for the YSR Sampoorna Poshana (Absolute Nutrition), a welfare programme under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), to provide nutritious food to children, pregnant women, and lactating mothers. They also want the government to bear the cost of cooking gas and clear pending rent for anganwadi buildings. They want uniforms for children coming to anganwadis and better infrastructure at the centres.
Other important demands are travel allowance and reduction in the number of apps where data needs to be updated or consolidation into one app. Gajalaxmi said, “The government has stopped giving us travel allowances since 2017. Employees are required to attend two sector meetings every month.” A sector consists of 30-25 centres. There is a sector supervisor who oversees all the functions in the centres.
Workers claimed that anganwadi staff are not eligible for government welfare schemes. “CM Jagan refers to the female population as his mothers and sisters but he is treating one lakh anganwadi staff indifferently. We are not eligible for schemes and we are paid less. Several workers are single or widowed women who are taking care of their children. While applying for schemes, anganwadis are considered a government sector and we cannot apply,” Gajalaxmi said.
Increase in workload
According to Subbalaxmi (50), who works in NR Puram panchayat in tribal-dominated Alluri Sitarama Raju district, working in tribal regions is more challenging. “We cannot cook anything available in the market. Food has to be provided as per the menu. Anganwadi staff have to go to the weekly market, which could be 20 km away in some cases, and bear the travel charges themselves. We have to attend the monthly meetings compulsorily. Most of our salary is spent on travel, which is not reimbursed. In addition, the internet connectivity here is poor. Four apps need to be updated daily – one Union government app (PM Poshan Tracker) and three apps from the state government. The state apps are YSR Sampoorna Poshana, YSR Milk, and Facial Recognition System (FRS) which is used for verifying the identity of beneficiaries.”
She added that the groceries provided to some remote centres need to be carried physically. “The vehicles can’t reach some of the anganwadi centres. The vehicle will be parked on the road and we workers have to carry the grocery bags. Sometimes, we request the driver to help and pay him,” Subbalaxmi said. In addition to the apps, physical records in the form of registers also have to be maintained, and according to workers, there are over 20 such registers.
BY Rani, an anganwadi worker, said, “We have to buy vegetables and get the bills reimbursed later. Today, the essential commodity prices are high. The government has allocated Rs 1.5 per child for vegetables; there are 15 children in a centre. We are reimbursed according to the budget allocated only. The gas bill payments are also delayed for months. We are handling two houses – our own and the anganwadi – at Rs 11,500.”
According to the staff, their workload has gone up because the periodicity of events to promote nutrition have gone up. Another programme, Jagananna Arogya Suraksha, was launched in September 2023 in phases across the state. Under this programme, health camps are conducted at the ward level by medical staff and the anganwadi workers are required to exhibit several kinds of nutritious foods like ragi, sprouts, pulses, and healthy laddus.
Challenges faced by tribal workers
Subbalaxmi told TNM that her colleague and friend Demmela Laxmi (52), who hailed from Seetapadu village, lost her life during Cyclone Michaung on December 6. “Laxmi had gone to the weekly market to get vegetables for the centre after drawing her salary from the bank. When she had left the water levels were not high. But while returning, she was washed away.”
Two others, an auto driver and a woman, also lost their lives along with Laxmi. “She was always dedicated to her work. She had knee pain but that did not stop her from attending meetings or work,” Subbalaxmi said.
Laxmi’s son-in-law Dali Babu (32) told TNM that her husband Jammaiah (62) has been bedridden for several years. “She used to take care of him by herself and also go to work. After her death, the District Collector Abhishek, MLA Chetti Phalguna, and several officials visited our house and promised to offer a job to another qualified person from the family.”
Talks with CMO and leaders
On December 25, the state government held talks with the anganwadi unions. Minister Botsa Satyanarayana, Special Chief Secretary KS Jawahar Reddy, state government adviser Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy, and Minister for Women and Child Welfare Usha Sri Charan, held a meeting with the representatives of the unions. However, the talks failed and protests continued. The state government said that the age limit for promotion of helpers has been increased to 50 and retirement age would be 62. The government also announced a bonus of Rs 1 lakh for workers and Rs 40,000 for helpers on completing 62 years.
Following the discussions, Minister Botsa Satyanarayana told the media that most of the demands were fulfilled. However, according to the anganwadi workers, only two demands were fully met. Two other demands were partially met. “The government has agreed to provide travel allowance from next month while the bills have been pending from 2017. It has announced a bonus at the time of retirement instead of a retirement benefit,” Suraja said.
“Even though we are demanding Rs 26,000 as minimum wage, the government could have announced an increase of at least Rs 3,000. We would have voted for the ruling party favourably, however, the government chose to completely ignore the demand,” said Sailaja, an anganwadi worker.
After the government issued an ultimatum asking the protesters to join work, the workers declared that they would hold relay hunger strikes. But on January 6, the government issued an order prohibiting them from holding protests for the next six months. The Department for Women, Children, Differently Abled and Senior Citizens issued the order declaring the services of anganwadi workers and helpers an essential service under the Andhra Pradesh Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1971. Invoking Section 3 of the Act, which empowers the government to prohibit strikes in any essential service, the order said, “The government hereby prohibits strikes by anganwadi workers and anganwadi helpers at all anganwadi centres for six months.”
The order states that the government has addressed a majority of the workers’ demands through discussions and that the strike is causing significant disruption to services, affecting around 7.5 lakh pre-school children in 55,605 anganwadi and mini anganwadi centres across the state. This, it said, had led to a drop in attendance and new registrations, particularly among pregnant women and lactating mothers, impacting essential services like growth monitoring and immunisation.
“The government is rightly concerned about lactating mothers and children. All anganwadi workers have considered it a service and worked all these years for less than minimum salary. The government has realised the importance of our work. Then should we not be compensated fairly?” Rani questioned. She added that the workers are determined to get their demands fulfilled and will continue their hunger strike.
Several workers told TNM that they have been receiving calls from their supervisors to rejoin work.
There have been reports that the Grama Sachivalayam staff, with the assistance of the police, have forced some centres to open. Anganwadis said that in an attempt to spread false information, the government tried to make it appear that the centres are open. Additionally, they alleged that the government threatened to hire new workers if the protesters did not show up for work.
“Though the government is being indifferent to female workers, our beneficiaries are extending support as they have availed our services. Our families too recognised the importance of our work and encouraged us to join the demonstrations,” Rani said.
Babu Rao said, “Anganwadis are not essential services. It is inhumane for the government to refuse to increase the salaries of anganwadi workers who have worked for decades with low wages. The Chief Minister has never spoken for those who have been on indefinite strike and it is a shame to try to suppress it. Anganwadis are getting support from their beneficiaries, common public, and all political parties as their demands are legitimate.”
Contributions of anganwadi workers
Anganwadi workers and helpers carry out a variety of tasks that contribute significantly to the ICDS scheme. They contribute to the cleanliness of anganwadi premises, maintain hygiene, and also cook and serve food to children (between three to six years of age). They conduct monthly weight checks for children, enter the values on growth cards, and refer cases for medical attention if needed. Every year, the workers conduct surveys of families in the area with a focus on mothers and children. They plan extracurricular activities for young children and offer supplemental feeding based on available resources. They also assist ASHA workers with pulse polio immunisation drives and implementation of health programmes. In addition, they conduct home visits to educate parents and provide birth information to the local authorities.
According to data from the 2015–16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS–4), Andhra Pradesh had an Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) of 35, (20 in urban areas and 40 in rural areas). The state performed better on the NFHS-5 survey in 2019–2020, with an overall IMR of 30. Both urban (30) and rural (29) areas showed a decrease.
Contract municipal workers also on strike
While anganwadis have been protesting for over 25 days, municipal workers on contract have also been protesting for 16 days demanding the same wages as regular employees. On January 10, Y Srilakshmi, Special Chief Secretary of Municipal and Urban Development, held talks with workers and announced the decision to extend the Occupational Health Allowance (OHA) of Rs 6,000 to all categories of municipal workers. The government also promised a retirement benefit of Rs 50,000 and increased the ex gratia from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 7 lakh. However, the workers’ demand to increase their wages has not been met.
“We have taken to the streets with demonstrations amid the restrictions imposed and will continue to put pressure on the government hoping to negotiate fairly,” Babu Rao said.