Every fifteen days, R Lakshmi, an Anganwadi worker in Thiruvallur district, gets on the back of her daughterâ€™s two-wheeler to distribute dry ration and eggs to families during the COVID-19 lockdown. Leaving her nine-month-old grandson at home, Lakshmi and her daughter travel close to 20 kilometers to deliver these essentials to beneficiaries under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). She has been delivering rations to the doorstep of at least 27 beneficiaries every fifteen days amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns.
Speaking to TNM, Lakshmi said, â€śI am responsible for providing ration to 27 beneficiaries every 15 days in a month. But, as I have to carry the essentials for 20 kilometres and deliver them to their doorstep, I end up making several trips. My daughter, who is a new mother herself, helps me deliver essentials in a two-wheeler.â€ť
Like Lakshmi, Anganwadi workers in Tamil Nadu have been working through the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns, delivering essentials to beneficiaries under ICDS. But beyond these regular responsibilities, Anganwadi workers in Tamil Nadu are also assisting health workers on COVID-19 duty, performing surveys while also keeping track of ICDS beneficiaries, and ensuring the children, new mothers, and out-of-school adolescent girls are in good health.
However, despite working during the pandemic and performing alongside frontline workers (FLW), Anganwadi workers allege they have been denied the FLW status and benefits that come along with that. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin had recently announced incentives for healthcare workers and other medical staff working in the COVID-19 second wave. The incentives ranged from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000. Additionally, workers declared as FLWs can also get treatment at government hospitals across the state on priority. Anganwadi workers have also demanded that the government regularise their jobs.
Maliga, an Anganwadi worker in Cuddalore district who retired in March said, â€śWe are more than happy to perform our duties, especially during a pandemic. Either by two-wheelers, bicycles, or by walking, we ensure the essentials reach the beneficiaries. However, despite all this, we have neither been declared as FLWs nor as government employees.â€ť
â€śWhen the government needs our labour, specifically during tough times like this, why won't they recognise us and pay us the due benefits,â€ť questions Maliga, hoping at least her former colleaguesâ€™ now get the benefits.
Elaborating further, T Daisy, General Secretary of Tamil Nadu Anganwadi Workers and Assistants Association said, â€śAn Anganwadi worker has to ensure the beneficiaries get essentials while also keeping track of their health status. However, when we are forced to work with health workers like Village Health Nurse (VHN) amid the COVID-19 surge, we expect the government to recognise us as FLWs too.â€ť
â€śMore than 20 Anganwadi workers have died due to COVID-19 in Tamil Nadu and we are left with no monetary compensation from the government,â€ť added Daisy. She also alleged that in many cases, several workers did not have proper safety gear while going out in the field. â€śItâ€™s only imperative that we are declared as FLWs and as government employees,â€ť said Daisy.
Speaking to TNM, an official with ICDS, Chennai said that although Anganwadi workers are not categorised as frontline workers, in case of death the government gives Rs 2 lakh compensation to the workerâ€™s family. The official, however, pointed out, â€śNot all Anganwadi workers are deployed on COVID-19 duty. So it is not wise to declare them as frontline workers.â€ť
The official also added that the government is yet to determine how many Anganwadi workers have died due to COVID-19. â€śinformation is pending from a few districts,â€ť said the official.
Tamil Nadu has 49,599 Anganwadi centers across the state, with two staff members -- an Anganwadi worker and an assistant, according to an official in ICDS. In addition, there are also 4,900 mini centers, which have one worker each. With the help of close to one lakh Anganwadi workers and assistants; the state government gives weaning food (such as cereals, pulses) to 34.47 lakh beneficiaries (children between 6 months â€“6-year-olds, antenatal and postnatal mothers, and out-of-school adolescent girls) every 15 days. In addition to this, three eggs per week are given for children between the ages of 2-6 and one egg for babies aged 1- 2, amounting to 11.71 lakh beneficiaries across the state in Tamil Nadu, said sources.