Thirty-seven-year-old Poonam Rani is having a bit of a rough day. The resident of Delhi's Aaya Nagar area has had to spend Rs 300 on transport for a set of new weighing machines that were required for her anganwadi (pre-school) centre. “I always have to pay from my own pocket for these things that are needed at the centre. If I buy in bulk I also have to pay for an auto rickshaw to transport the supplies from the shop to the centre,” says Poonam.
Poonam says her monthly salary is Rs 9,678, of which Rs 3,000 is paid by the Centre and the rest, by the Delhi government. Recently, the Centre decided to raise its contribution when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced what he referred to as a “significant increase” in the honorarium for anganwadi workers such as Poonam.
From October, the Centre would contribute Rs 1,500 more, he said. So, from the current amount of Rs 3,000 per month, the Centre would raise its stake to Rs 4,500, and for those who work at mini anganwadi centres, the centre would pay Rs 3,500 (up from Rs 2,250). The helpers at anganwadis—those who fetch the children from their home, serve food and clean the centres—would also be entitled to an increased honorarium from Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,250.
So why is Poonam not happy? “First of all, I am not able to save much from the money that I get. This is because I am expected to pay for supplies at the anganwadi. I have to pay for registers, charts, sundry supplies for activities for the kids, weighing machines, and chairs. Sometimes we distribute treats for the kids such as toffees, or chocolates. Those too, we are expected to pay from our own pocket,” she says.
Across the country, workers such as Poonam, along with their helpers, run the world's largest integrated early childhood programme for food, preschool education, and primary healthcare to children under six years of age and their mothers. In a bid to woo them before the election season, the PM has announced a hike for them.
However, a section of workers are not pleased with the raise. “We don't want hikes of any sort. What we want instead [of honorariums] are salaries, and permanent jobs for the women,” said Shivani Kaul, president, Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union that represents 14,000 workers and helpers across 11,000 anganwadis in the national capital.
Kaul says that anganwadi workers have long been agitating for permanent job status, that would not just regulate their working hours, but also entitle them to benefits such as provident funds, maternity leave, and summer and winter breaks.
What is happening now, she said, is that the workers don't get paid in time—honorariums are often delayed by several months—have no scheduled vacations or breaks and work for longer hours than stipulated. “The work timings are from 9-2pm. But the workers end up working till 5 anyway since they have duties such as conducting surveys which they are allowed to do only after 2pm. So, we are saying make it eight hours, and then give us permanent jobs,” she said.
Take the case of Poonam who starts her day at 9am, immediately after posting her location to her supervisor to "mark her attendance". "After that I make the kids do their prayers, some light exercise, make them study and organise some activities, too," she explains. Trouble starts at lunch time, Poonam says that many parents refuse the food that is served at the centres because of the bad quality of food. "Nobody wants to eat watery daliya or khichdi. Sometimes when we give the food in a tiffin to the child to take back home, parents throw it away. They tell us to just teach the kid, don't give them any food," she says.
Besides the bad quality of food, the infrastructure at anganwadis is also in bad shape. According to a NITI Aayog report, 41 per cent of the anganwadi centres are short of space, 13.7 per cent centres do not even have supply of drinking water. Kaul says that the government needs to get its act together on these matters. "The daliya and halwa served at the centres are watery, the chana is served with just salt added in it. Unless the food quality is improved, obviously it will affect attendance at the centres,” she said. Kaul also pointed to the Delhi government turning a blind eye to corrupt NGOs who were involved in supplying food—there had been several instances of worms being found in food—to the anganwadi centres.
Instead of favouring private pre-school centres, Kaul said the government needed to upgrade the infrastructure at anganwadis and improve food quality so that more children would be able to benefit from the scheme, she said.
Poonam says it would be best if the government gave "dry items" such as daliya in packets at the centres, so that the parents could cook the food in a hygienic manner, and in the way the kids prefer too. "This would make it more palatable for the children. Instead of looking at these things, the government wants to install CCTVs at the centres and create pressure on us. Why not install CCTVs at the kitchens where the food is prepared? Tell me, is it my fault if no one wants bad food for their kids?"