As Kanti, 48, an anganwadi helper who lost her job four months ago, walked into her colleague’s two-room house, her friends, who had already assembled for a meeting, said, “Kanti nahi kranti hai woh (she is not Kanti, she is revolutionary).” With a grimace, she replied, “My life is anything but revolutionary.” One of the 884 anganwadi workers and helpers terminated from their jobs on March 13 following a month-long protest to press for better wages, Kanti is yet to find another job.
Kanti, who had been working as an anganwadi helper for 30 years at the time, said: “The order came on WhatsApp on March 14, dated the previous day. I could not comprehend the reason. It was my right to protest, and it cannot be the grounds on which they fire us.”
A single mother, she lives with one of her two sons at Shankar Marg in Fazalpur, who ekes out a living by selling toys. “My husband died two months ago. I have not been able to get another job,” she said. Showing her near-empty wallet, she said, “Look how big my purse is, but it does not have anything.”
After the matter reached Delhi High Court in March, the Delhi government assured the bench that it would not terminate any more anganwadi workers or helpers in connection with the strike.
When asked if the government would consider taking back the terminated persons, its lawyer, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, said that the government would try to take a compassionate view but the petitioners “should not put a gun on my head”.
In February, the then women and child development minister Rajendra Pal Gautam announced that honorariums for anganwadi workers and helpers will be increased to Rs 12,720 and Rs 6,810 respectively and said that this hike would be implemented from March 1.
The protests, however, continued as protesting workers found the increase too low and their demands such as healthcare coverage and PF were not met. This was till the termination notices started trickling in March.
Anita (32), another single mother, had been working as a helper for 15 years when she was terminated via a letter on WhatsApp, later sent by post, that read, “… (she) was reported to have been continuously absenting from duties and also admitted to being an active participant in the strike, agitation and dharna… services have been hereby terminated with immediate effect.” She started working in 2007 for a salary of Rs 750, which was Rs 4,839 the last time it was credited to her bank account, in January.
“Apart from a widow pension since my husband’s death four years ago and odd jobs like rakhi-making, my family has no income. On many days, we eat at a gurdwara langar nearby. I don’t have a ration card either. We have to rely on dry rations my son brings from his school. The union (Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union) helps me financially at times,” Anita said.
Anita’s mother Jaivati and sister Maneesha were also terminated after the protest. “Maneesha got a loan of about Rs 50,000 as she could not pay for her children’s fees,” Anita said.
Anganwadi helpers’ job entails ensuring the attendance of children in areas assigned to them, serving food, and overseeing their hygiene. They work in the sector of early childhood care, under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) which focuses on the development of the health and nutritional status of children between 0 to 6 years of age.
Delhi has 10,392 workers and 10,739 helpers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they also had to do door-to-door delivery of rations, check in on the health of children and do rounds in areas under the anganwadi limits. “We were not provided with masks or any protective gear, and the transportation and other costs were met from our own salary of Rs 4,839. People have misbehaved during these surveys. We have neither job security nor safety while carrying it out,” said Bimla (42), whose children’s tuition fees were earlier paid by her income. She was posted at ICDS Shakarpur.
“My husband earns a pittance from his shop. The entire home runs on it now,” she said.
“All anganwadis in Delhi hit the brakes when the strike started; no one was working since there was a large turnout at the protest site. However, those who did not partake were paid their monthly allowance, and we, who went there for all, got terminated. Imagine having no income for seven months,” Bimla said.
The workers and helpers currently on the payroll begin their day at 9 am and work until 2 pm. “Sometimes we had to work on holidays and non-work hours without pay,” said Sushila Rawat (55), an anganwadi worker who had been working since 1992, who is among those pushing to be reinstated. “But I will not stay in this job, I will resign the moment the termination is revoked. My family and sons provide for me, but I have to ensure my colleagues’ lives are not affected,” she added.
On July 16, a delegation met L-G V K Saxena and submitted a memorandum. “Nothing has happened after that; we are still awaiting a response from his office,” Anita said.
Though the Delhi government sent out 11,942 show cause notices for participating in the strike, termination orders came for 884. Workers and helpers say they do not know why these 884 were singled out.
Delhi government officials, meanwhile, said that no call has been taken yet on reinstating the workers.