What the 42-day strike by Andhra Anganwadi workers tells us

The success of the workers' strike was preceded by weeks of anger. TNM spoke to several Anganwadi workers in Vijayawada to better understand how despite a promise made by CM Jagan before the 2019 elections, their demand for better pay fell on unyielding ears.
Anganwadi workers hunger strike, demand AP govt to increase salaries.
Anganwadi workers hunger strike, demand AP govt to increase salaries.
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Beneath a fading portrait of Vladimir Lenin, on Sunday, January 21, over a thousand Anganwadi workers in Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada went on strike against the government’s unwillingness to increase salaries. Behind the portrait, 15 women lay down on the dais, among whom 13 had been fasting for five days continuously. Two among them – Gajalakshmi and Subbaravamma – were sent to a government hospital to recuperate from their weakness, and leaders affiliated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) replaced them on the dais. The strike, spanning 42 days, came to an end on Tuesday, January 23, after the Andhra Pradesh government agreed to increase wages and provide insurance coverage. 

The success of the workers' strike was preceded by five weeks of anger, and TNM spoke to several Anganwadi workers in Vijayawada to better understand how despite a promise made by Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy before the 2019 elections, their demand for better pay fell on unyielding ears. 

Over one lakh Anganwadi workers protested since December 12 across Andhra Pradesh for better pay and working conditions. They demanded Rs 26,000 as salary (against their existing salary of Rs 11,500), gratuity, paid medical leaves, recognition of mini workers as main workers, retirement benefits, and pension. Now, three months ahead of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections and the Lok Sabha polls scheduled for April-May 2024, the issues faced by the Anganwadi staff have become a major talking point. 

The protest had taken on several shades since it commenced, with workers deeply resentful of Andhra Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his party, the ruling YSRCP. Songs with phrases like ‘AC lo kurchinadu Jagananna, road pai manta alladu Jaganna’ (Our brother, CM Jagan is sitting in an AC room and has lit the (protesting) streets on fire) echoed through Vijayawada’s dharna chowk, eight kilometres away from Jagan’s camp office in Amaravati. 

Protestors also made it clear that this problem wasn’t one just thrown up by the state government, because even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Union government failed to deliver on a host of promises.  

“The problem began when the Union government, from 2015 onwards, reduced funding for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Reduction in funding for ICDS meant reduced funding for Anganwadi workers. Further, the planning commission allowed for a yearly salary increment for Anganwadi staff. With the coming of the NITI Aayog in 2015, that was done away with. Aside from an increase of Rs 3500 under the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) led government between 2014-2019, and an increase of Rs 1000 under YSRCP in June 2019, we haven’t seen a consistent increase in salaries, commiserate with the work we do,” said Baby Rani, Kakinada in charge for the AP Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union. 

The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), now known as Saksham Anganwadi and POSHAN 2.0, is allocated Rs 20,554 crore for the Financial Year 2023-24, a meager increase of 1% over the revised estimates for 2022-23. But policy issues aside, several workers also told TNM that their working conditions worsened under the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led state government. 

Four apps, increased work burden

A typical day in the life of an Anganwadi worker in Andhra is compounded by the existence of four apps into which they are asked to enter details. Starting from 8:30 am, workers are expected to clean washrooms, ensure that children aged between 3–5 are given eggs and milk and that they are taught, and then fed lunch before classes resume. They are also responsible for ensuring that lactating women receive food and medicinal facilities, as well as immunisation. 

Aside from their daily work, Anganwadi staff is expected to update four apps daily – one Union government app (PM Poshan Tracker) and three apps from the state government, namely YSR Sampoorna Poshana, YSR Milk, and Facial Recognition System (FRS), used to verify the identity of the beneficiaries. 

Vidya, a Scheduled Caste (SC) Christian from the NTR district, and a resident of Vijayawada, explained the steps involved in the YSR Sampoorna Poshana app. “The worker first uploads a photo of the bathroom to show that it has been cleaned. Then the teacher has to ensure that attendance is uploaded in the app. Anganwadi staff are also expected to table the food given to each child, take a photo, and measure each child’s height and weight to better understand if a child’s nutrition levels have improved or not,” she said. 

“A major chunk of the day goes into tabling the app. We also side-by-side record all of this in our registers,” explained Veeramani (42), a Madiga (categorised as SC) Anganwadi worker from the Kakinada district. Seated next to her, Sowbhagyalakshmi, a Mala worker (categorised as SC), also from Kakinada, added that often, the app stops working properly. “The phones given by the government don't work. So we had to install the apps on our phones. The allocated 2GB for a month does not suffice. If the apps don’t work, students are often left waiting,” she explained. 

The PM-Poshan Abhiyaan Scheme’s app, Poshan Tracker, has encouraged nutrition and growth monitoring of students. “It's the Union government’s version of the YSR app. Unless we upload all the day for a given day, the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) does not consider our work done. I run out of the Anganwadi center for better connectivity several times a day,”  Veeramani further added. 

The Facial Recognition System (FRS) app requires beneficiaries, i.e. lactating women, to visit Anganwadi centres during the first week of each month, and get their identities verified through the app installed in the phones of the workers before availing of the YSR kits. The YSR milk app requires workers to go and collect them from local government facilities after biometrics of a worker, and female police officials posted at the facilities are taken in the app. 

“If they don’t trust us, why should we trust them?” asked a worker from the Bapatla district, referring to the state government. Aside from the apps, the state government also continually throws up new programs and directives, adding to the workload of the Anganwadi workers. 

Anganwadi workers at Vijayawada's dharna chowk.
Anganwadi workers at Vijayawada's dharna chowk.

In July 2023 for instance, CM Jagan directed Anganwadi workers to participate in a ‘Family Doctors’ programme so that growth, vaccination, and children’s habits could be monitored. Baby Rani told TNM that Anganwadi staff has several times participated in programs including those meant for lactating women, the YSRCP’s Jaganna Suraksha program, and other events. “Aside from all this, we are expected to teach as well,” added Sowbhagyalakshmi. 

Policy and planning vis-a-vis the Anganwadi workers have been tailored to ply them with more work. The draft New Education Policy, for instance, places an emphasis on Early Care and Childhood Education (ECCE), which is supposed to help children below the age of six, better prepare for school. “The core of our Early Care arrangement is the Anganwadi system, and the Anganwadi workers who are literally paid a pittance and not even recognised as government employees can scarcely be entrusted with the burden of a revamped Early Care system of the sort visualised in the NEP report, without an improvement in their status,” wrote Prabhat Pattnaik in his 2019 paper titled On the Draft National Policy on Education.

Gas, rent, and food paid for by workers, not govt

Another major problem pointed out by a worker from the Konaseema district is how the Anganwadi workers are often compelled to use their salaries to run the centers out of their own pockets. “All teachers get paid Rs 11,500. In several cases, we end up paying to keep the centers afloat,” she remarked.

On average, several workers end up paying Rs 500 per month for a gas cylinder (even though the state government accounts for only Rs 125), Rs 300-400 worth of vegetables, and around Rs 200 for travel for various meetings and to collect ration. In a few select cases, workers told TNM that they have paid the rent for the Anganwadi centre which amounts to nearly Rs 1500. In essence, several workers end up returning home with Rs 2000 less than the proposed wages. 

“I can’t quit. I need the money. Salaries are invariably late. January’s salary reaches us in March. The reimbursement for all that we spend comes several months later,” added Sarojamma (45), a worker from the Annamayya district. 

Members of AITUC, CITU aiding in the protest.
Members of AITUC, CITU aiding in the protest.

Nagamaleshwaramma, member of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Bapatla, remarked that despite several meetings with AP cabinet 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, they weren’t promised a hike. 

“They kept saying they would increase our salaries in July but refused to explain how much the increase would be. The government announced an increase of Rs 1, 20,000 for workers and Rs 40,000 for helpers as a retirement benefit from the existing amounts of Rs 50,000 and Rs 20,000. They also said that Rs 20,000 would be provided for our funeral services if needed, but were unwilling to comment on our salaries,” said Nagamaleshwaramma.

“The issues aren’t to say that things were better under the TDP. We got a salary hike of Rs 3500 because we protested back in 2017 against the TDP.  TDP, Jana Sena, Congress, and other parties pledged support, but they were unwilling to promise an increase in our salaries. Until they were certain we couldn’t be intimidated, YSRCP too was silent on the issue,” underlined Baby Rani. 

According to the official statement, agreeing to the demands of the protesting workers, the Andhra government said it would address all the 11 demands laid out by them. The government also agreed to increase their salaries after discussions with the Union government, and the increments are to be implemented from July 2024. 

Though the government has now agreed to their demands, the workers still remain wary. A worker from Vijayawada said that before becoming the CM, Jagan in a padayatra, promised that he would pay Rs 1000 more than the Telangana government did. “Telangana CM Revanth Reddy has ensured that workers get paid Rs 14,750 but Jagan went silent on his promise. We are prepared to protest again if the promise isn’t fulfilled,” she asserted.

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