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Honour the volunteer

Not recognised as permanent workers, anganwadi activists are deprived of access to basic necessities alongside experiencing widespread exploitation

Honour the volunteer

In an unusual gesture, Prime Minister Modi had chosen to personally announce an increase in the honorarium for scheme workers, such as anganwadi workers and accredited social health activists (ASHAs), on September 21, 2018. He even called it a "landmark increase in remuneration". However, the increase turned out to be quite paltry in absolute terms.

Anganwadi workers who were getting an honorarium of Rs 3,000 would get Rs 4,500 per month and the mini-anganwadi workers, who single-handedly manage small anganwadis in remote areas and earlier received Rs 2,200, would get Rs 3, 500. The anganwadi helper who used to get Rs 1,500 per month would get Rs 2,250 from October. For ASHA workers, the recurring performance-based incentives would be doubled.

Why are these paltry amounts? Just compare them with the national floor-level minimum wage of Rs 176 per day, as notified on July 1, 2017, below which no minimum wage should be fixed; the minimum wage for semi-skilled and skilled workers in agriculture stands at Rs 325 and Rs 353 respectively, fixed by the Centre on April 3, 2018; the minimum wage of Rs 500 per day is fixed for security guards, who have been reclassified as skilled workers, on September 13, 2016; the minimum wage for non-farm workers is in the central sphere of Rs 307–364 for semi-skilled workers and Rs 334–395 for skilled workers, as was notified on January 19, 2017. Finally, above all, the minimum wage of Rs 600 per day was fixed as the lowest minimum wage in Kerala, earlier this year.

However, going by the government's definition, anganwadi and ASHA workers are not 'workers' but only 'volunteers', who do not receive any 'wage' but only an 'honorarium'! So, the principle of minimum wage would seemingly not apply to these scheme workers. The enormity of injustice delivered to these workers would be clear once we consider that there are more than 26 lakh anganwadi workers and 8.73 lakh ASHAs all across the country.

Judiciary opinion on this opinion also stands divided. In case after case, the higher judiciary has come up with verdicts stating that they don't qualify as workers who can be regularised within the framework. The courts have rejected their existence as government employees – but that was in the context of serving ASHAs contesting assembly or panchayat polls. Are they covered under the minimum wage law? Or, at least, should they have wage parity with regular workers like ANMs as ASHAs do perform many similar activities and even substitute them where their posts are vacant. This question has not yet come up concretely before the higher judiciary. However, in a certain case, the court has ruled that they were entitled to gratuity.

But the State of Punjab and Others vs Jagjit Singh case has offered a glimmer of hope for scheme workers. In that case, in 2016, the Supreme Court had ruled that all types of temporary workers and daily wagers are entitled to receive wage parity with regular workers, provided they perform similar work. Where ASHA workers are absent, ANMs, who are regulars, perform the same work. There are also a few other case laws where courts have upheld not only the principle of equal pay for equal work but also the principle of fair wages as such.

After nine months of antenatal and post-natal care involving at least six home visits, the ASHA worker gets an incentive of Rs 200 if she arranges an institutional delivery. They are out to promote universal immunisation. They will have to deliver contraceptives at the homes of the beneficiaries. They will have to track TB, leprosy and AIDS in their assigned area and also deliver medicines for these diseases. They will have to address outbreaks of other epidemics like chikungunya and swine flu, among others. They will have to engage in counselling to provide guidance in breastfeeding and maintaining nutrition etc. Though the Centre has fixed incentives for only eight specific types of activities, they are forced to perform at least 35 different tasks, including some unrelated to healthcare. According to the Tenth Common Review Mission report on National Health Mission, the average monthly incentive amounts for ASHAs range from Rs 2,350 in Jharkhand to Rs 900 in Nagaland. Even after the recent hike by Modi, they might at best earn Rs 100–120 per day.

In fact, the 45th session of the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) had recommended that all scheme workers should be recognised as 'workers' and not as 'volunteers' or 'honorary workers', they should be paid minimum wages and they should get all statutory benefits like pension, gratuity, DA, earned leave, medical leave and maternity benefits, including child care leave etc. ILC also recommended that anganwadi workers and ASHAs be covered with life and health insurance under Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana and Rashtriya Swastya Bima Yojana. It also recommended that suitable working space and amenities be extended to ASHAs as they have limited access to even the most basic necessities. It also said that they should have the right to organise and practice collective bargaining. But the action taken report presented by the government at the 46th meeting of the Standing Labour Committee rejected each and every demand, except the demand for insurance coverage. This, despite the same government being party to the recommendations of the ILC, a tripartite body!

In a hierarchic cultural milieu where occupations are ranked as high and low, who would respect ASHAs earning one-third of what an agricultural labourer earns? No wonder Modi's announcement of a paltry increase in their honorarium was met with protests from ASHA workers. In the first week of October, the ASHA workers of Madhya Pradesh laid a siege around the house of former CM Chauhan, demanding minimum wages. ASHAs in Bihar launched a strike on December 2, which has been continuing for the last 20 days, demanding implementation of the ILC recommendations.

The scheme workers are preparing for a showdown in some other states too before the 2019 polls.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

B. Sivaraman

B. Sivaraman

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