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Tired and underpaid, Anganwadi workers feel neglected in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar

Called to election duty, these female foot soldiers had to end a 36-day strike last month.

Written by Esha Roy | New Delhi | Updated: October 19, 2020 10:54:28 am
Bihar elections, Bihar elections 2020, Bihar elections Anganwadi workers, Anganwadi workers Bihar, Anganwadi workers Bihar elections, India news, Indian ExpressAnganwadi workers on election duty in Bihar. (Express Photo)

In Begusarai district, Anganwadi worker Sangita Jha, 47, who would earlier clock 9 am to 6 pm in pre-Covid times, caring for the 225 families within her purview, has stopped counting the hours. The pandemic and the impending Assembly election have left the already underpaid and neglected Anganwadi women exasperated. Around two lakh Anganwadi women in the state, last month, pulled out of a 36-day strike to demand higher honorarium and the status of government employees. Bihar has one lakh Anganwadi sevikas (workers) who get paid Rs 5,650 a month, and an equal number of sahayikas (helpers) who get Rs 2,825. Follow Bihar elections 2020 LIVE updates

Mandated to execute the projects under the government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, the Anganwadi workers provide nutrition to pregnant women, young children and lactating mothers. “But this is never the case. We are called to duty for every government assignment, including the elections,” says Sangita. Last month, they were instructed to carry out small rallies, accompanied by children, raise slogans, and conduct a rangoli campaign to impress upon villagers the need to vote.

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On October 11, the Anganwadi workers were trained on how the voting process is carried out and how the electronic voting machines (EVMs) work. The Anganwadi sevikas and sahayikas “are also tasked with identifying voters, creating and submitting a roster to the administration. On polling day, we have to ensure the genuine voter is voting,” says Sangita. This, the government teachers also do. The only difference is, she says, “they get paid for it, we don’t”.

“The work is exactly what the teachers do. It is only fitting that we also get the rank of government employees,” says sevika Nitu Singh of Lalganj in Vaishali district. “Hence, we carried out a strike from August 21 to September 25, demanding our honorarium to be increased to Rs 15,000, and that of the sahayikas to Rs 10,000. Nitish babu’s government had assured that they will raise the amount by another Rs 300, but who can live on Rs 6,000 a month anymore,” she adds. “While a minimum wage worker also gets more, even this paltry monthly raise hasn’t been disbursed yet,” says Kumar Vindeshwar, general secretary, Bihar Rajya Anganwadi Karamchari Union, adding that the month-long strike, which saw participation from other Anganwadi unions besides the two lakh Anganwadi women workers and helpers, would had continued if it weren’t for the election model code of conduct.

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“How do we survive on so little with the prices of vegetables, school fees, food, clothing, etc., having gone up? With such a treatment, the government humiliates its women citizens. Jo hamari baat karega, Bihar mein wohi raaj karega (those who speak for us, will reign supreme in Bihar),” says Sangita, who draws strength from the 2019 Jharkhand election, when then chief minister Raghubar Das’ government was toppled. Das happened to have threatened to expel the state’s more than 70,000 Anganwadi workers in order to quell their two-month agitation.

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They, however, remain neglected. While returning from a government district-meeting last month, three Anganwadi sevikas died in an accident. “We collected money among ourselves, from across the districts, and donated Rs 3.5 lakh to each of the sevika’s families,” says sevika Sabnam Jha of Madhubani district. Sabnam, 43, and her sahayika have been making the rounds of the villages. Along with the election work, a campaign of administering polio drops began last month. “Even this job has been given to us, but except for a mask, no other protective gear was given. It isn’t just poshan abhiyan, we are made to carry out all of the government schemes at the village level,” she says.

Soni Kumari, a sevika from Supaul district, says, their work has been particularly fraught during the pandemic. “We’ve had to conduct surveys in the villages, find out who may have had the symptoms, and then, keep a record of the migrants returning to their homes. There have been several instances of sevikas being threatened and even beaten up by the villagers while conducting these surveys,” says Kumari.

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Their other “duties” give the Anganwadi women little time to carry out their main tasks, which get neglected. But even at other times, they don’t get the requisite ration and food needed for nutrition to be given to the beneficiaries. And, during the pandemic, not everyone was covered in the state’s direct transfers to the beneficiaries, adds Sangita, “In a block with around 100 beneficiaries, only five-ten actually received the money. The ICDS scheme is a failure.”

Riding the anti-incumbency wave, Sabnam says, “Each sevika can reach at least 1,000 people. I work with 2,200, which includes beneficiaries and their families. In our campaign to challenge the government, we need our beneficiaries and their families to support us. There is no money from the (Pradhan Mantri) Jan-Dhan Yojana, no employment in the state, women receive no benefits. We have decided to vote for the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance).”

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