Government Schemes can't run without Women: India’s Hidden Unrest

Published: October 28, 2016 - 17:37 Updated: August 10, 2017 - 15:13

If the female workers who are instrumental to the smooth functioning of social schemes are not reimbursed adequately, then the entire foundation of these schemes will collapse

Women from several states, the countryside and rural regions have been pouring out on the streets for little over a year. They are protesting against the lack of recognition and reimbursement for the work they do in government sponsored schemes. These women, who work in various schemes such as ICDS, NHRM and Mid-Day meal cooking, are demanding something simple: the work that they do as a part of the various schemes that are operational in the villages, blocks and districts be recognised as real work and not volunteer or honorary work and they get reimbursed adequately for the same.   

Conservative estimates place the number of women engaged in these schemes as nearly 1 crore according to the several unions working and attempting to mobilise these workers. One such union Rahstriya MDM Rasoiya workers union marched to New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, on October 24, bringing hundreds of mid-day meal workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to the national capital to put forward their demands. “Our demand is that the INR 1,000 per month we get as payment should be increased to Rs. 6000 per month,” said a woman who identified herself as Rajesh’s wife, from Allahabad. Those who had congregated to protest against the wages, also complained about not getting their wages on time, or not at all. “The headmaster cuts our wages as he deems fit, if we don’t come to school one or two days, he cuts INR 200-300 from our paychecks, we are left to their whims and fancies. Cooking is not the only work we do in the school, we clean the yard, the toilets and make tea for the headmasters, but our money comes through him. There is also so much corruption in the way the grains, rice and lentils are supplied. They are all making money, but us,” said, another woman.   

There are several problems that these women face, but what bothers them the most is that there hard labour is not recognised, but chided as being an extension of what they do at home, or their duty. Most of these women get to the school far before the students and the teachers and clean, prepare the meals and do other work around the school. However, what they fail to see is how things will get tougher for them; they are largely unaware that the government is planning to give packaged food to school going children rather than having them cook the meals. This will render them unemployed and for many this is the only source of income for them and their families.

The work done by these women is regarded as volunteer work for which they get an honorarium – a token amount. This belief is not only limited to the women working in the MDM scheme, but is visible amongst all the various scheme workers from the Anganwadi worker and the Ayah, to the ASHA workers. It is the Anganwadi workers who, part of the most celebrated scheme not only in India, but the world, the Integrated Child Development Scheme who are constantly short changed. Their wages have not been increased, again much like the MDM workers they don’t get their wages on time or for months altogether.

According to questions asked in the parliament, an Anganwadi worker is paid INR 3,000-5,000, including additions from the State Government, while the Anganwadi helper is paid INR 1,500. The ASHA worker, as a part of the NRHM don’t have an ‘honorarium’ and get performance based incentives. The Mid-Day-Meal workers get only INR 1,000 per month and get work only ten months in a year.

The AWW are demanding that their wages be increased to a basic minimum of 15,000-18,000, their work be regularised and they be made permanent workers with Employee Insurance Schemes, Employee Providential Firms. ASHA workers have taken to the streets in Haryana demanding security nets from the government, “While we might work, our stomachs don’t work for free,” is what they chant.

In the past year, Anganwadi Workers have crowded the roads of Bangalore, Chandigarh and many other state capitals. While, recent reports of Rahul Gandhi’s cavalcade being stopped by hundreds of Anganwadi workers has been doing the rounds; it was these women who came out in large numbers during the September 2, National Union Strike. “During the September 2 strike, in Gujarat, while our [Central Indian Trade Unions (CITU)] presence is very limited in the state, despite this on that day nearly 70,000 anganwadi workers and helpers thronged the streets, this was witnessed all over the country,” said A.K Padmanabhan, President of the CITU.

Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, are amongst the many states where large protests have been staged by women. In Lucknow, thousands of women came together and marched to Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, who according to them met them, and promised an increase in their wages by INR 2000, which they haven’t got. Many even allege, that he said if he returns then their wages will be increased to INR 4000

Is there a solution?

While there has been pressure from within the government and opposition to recognise these women as full time employees and give them social security benefits, there is a reluctance on the part of the government to relent to their demands. While, reports emerging from many states point towards a slash in the budget of social schemes from MNREGA, ICDS and even NHRM these women whose only source of livelihood in an already crippled rural economy, with little or no avenues for non-agrarian work is fast depleting. This form of work allows them to augment, and in many cases it is the only source of their family incomes that ensures enough food and nutrition for their children.

The work done by these women was conceptualised for them to be the first line of actors in health information dissemination, providing clean facilities for pregnant women and pre-natal, neo-natal care to women in their villages. If these women aren’t reimbursed, or incentivised adequately the entire foundation of these social schemes may collapse, not only rendering nearly a crore women unemployed, but also it will have far reaching impact on the children`s development, the health of pregnant women and other problems of health awareness in villages all over the country.

The increase in income is absolutely necessary, but so is the way they should be getting their income. For a government that is pushing for greater financial inclusion, these stories emerging from persons engaged in government work is a troubling revelation. While the much touted Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile schemes should be effectively used to curb these leakages, nothing is really happening to prevent the straight-up denial of wages and deductions.

While these protests are sporadic, unsustained and unorganised efforts and taking place away from the eyes of those living in urban areas, these protests are gaining massive momentum everywhere in the countryside. It’s only a matter of time that they spill into public view and attention, till then this is India’s biggest hidden unrest.