Anganwadi Workers Strike, Win Important Demands
NEARLY two lakh Anganwadi workers and helpers of Maharashtra recently went on an indefinite strike at the call of the Maharashtra Rajya Anganwadi Karmachari Kriti Samiti, of which the Anganwadi Karmachari Sanghatana, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH), is an important part. The total strike lasted for a full one month as, starting from January 6, it went on till February 5, when 90,000 Anganwadis and 20,000 Mini Anganwadis were closed and all the six services provided stopped. HISTORIC UNITY The main demands were retirement benefits, regularisation, raise in honorarium, supply of freshly cooked supplementary nutritious food of good quality, one month summer vacation and 15 days medical leave, stop to privatisation of ICDS and end to corruption. The strike achieved historic unity between all the six unions which came together to form an action committee. Efforts for it had started in 2010 when five Anganwadi unions came together to observe the one day token strike on July 11, for which the call was given by AIFAWH. The joint struggle following the strike saw many district and state level rallies on the said demands along with local issues. The struggle achieved partial success, though the main issues of pension and enhancement of honorarium remained unsolved. The Kriti Samiti then decided to go on an indefinite strike from October 22, 2010, which went on till October 26 when the government promised to implement pension scheme and raise the honorarium. But it did not keep its promise except raising the honorarium of workers, Mini Anganwadi workers and helpers by Rs 250, 200 and 100 respectively. As the issues were not solved despite several joint and separate actions over the three years, the Kriti Samiti gave an ultimatum to go on an indefinite strike in the beginning of 2014. This time one more union joined the Kriti Samiti. A Convenors Committee was then formed, comprising M A Patil (M R A K Sangh, NTUI), Shubha Shamim (A K Sanghatana, CITU), Sukumar Damle (A K Union, AITUC), Kamal Parulekar (A K Sabha, HMS), Bhagwan Deshmukh (M R A Sevika Madatnis Mahasangh, an independent union), and Sushila Kulkarni (SSS). The committee held a massive demonstration in Azad Maidan, Mumbai on October 22, to warn the government and announced to go on strike from January 6 if the issues were not resolved till the end of the year. A delegation of Kriti Samiti met the chief minister, Prithviraj Chavhan, on October 23, gave him the memorandum and discussed the issues in detail. District level rallies were held on the same day to give notices to the district administrations and to the ICDS commissioner, principal secretary of the Women and Child Development Department, the concerned minister, the deputy chief minister and the chief minister. As the government did not hold any talk with the unions, an indefinite strike commenced from January 6, 2014. District level rallies were held in more than 25 districts, with the Kriti Samiti taking initiative in 18 districts. DELEGATION MEETS CM The Kriti Samiti called for a massive state level rally at Azad Maidan again on January 8. More than 15,000 workers and helpers gathered for a militant demonstration. They insisted that either the chief minister or deputy chief minister, and not the WCD minister or secretary, should call the Samiti for talks because the file of retirement benefit had already been forwarded to the Finance Department where it was pending for more than eight months. The workers became restless when the deadline of 4 p m passed, and started to hold the traffic. The police tried to stop them and shut the gates but more than 1,000 workers did come out of the Maidan and held a militant Rasta Roko. Some women suffered injuries in the lathicharge. For more than 30 minutes the main road near the CST was blocked. The CM called a delegation for talks at 6 p m. The chief minister promised to pass the proposal of retirement benefit of Rs one lakh for the workers and Rs 75,000 for the helpers in the coming cabinet meeting. He also asked the WCD department to prepare a proposal for raise in the state’s share in the honorarium. The Kriti Samiti demanded that the raise should be substantial so that workers could cope up with the steep price rise. It also provided data of the extra honorarium given by 14 states who are ahead of Maharashtra, and also demanded that the raise for workers and helpers should be equal so that the disparity between their honoraria gets decreased. The Samiti also demanded that honoraria should be linked to the price index and regularly revised, as in Tripura. The delegation was shocked to know that the department had failed to even propose a raise and put it forward to the Finance Department. The CM then asked it to prepare a proposal for it. It was decided that the CM would coordinate between all the concerned departments and take initiative for speedy decisions. The Kriti Samiti organised struggles at the district and local levels in the second week. Samiti units in all the districts, like Pune, Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, Jalna, Nanded, Nasik, Ahmednagar, Nagpur, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Amarawati, Wardha, Gondia, Bhandara, Buldana, Thane and Mumbai, launched local independent struggles and also participated in joint struggles. Rasta Roko, Jail Bharo, demonstrations and sit-ins were held daily in the second week in front of the offices or residence of ministers, MPs and MLAs, at Collectorates and Commissionerates. Nearly 25,000 workers were on the roads everyday all over the state. The Samiti warned of an indefinite relay hunger strike in Mumbai and the districts from January 20 if the demands were not met. HUNGER STRIKE & OTHER ACTIONS As the Finance Department totally ignored the demands, the Convenors Committee started a relay hunger strike from January 20. It got good media coverage and support. All the Marathi news channels held talk shows and special programmes on the hunger strike and agitations held in Mumbai and other districts. Marathi papers also gave daily updates of the agitations and the talks held with the government. Some English papers also covered the actions occasionally. The trade unions’ joint action committee in the state held a rally in Azad Maidan on January 22, in the support of the strike. Leaders of the AITUC, CITU, AIBEA, university and college teachers, junior college teachers, LECOY, HMS, NTUI, Sarva Shramik SanghSonya and AIDWA, among others, addressed the rally. The AIFAWH also took initiative to mobilise support of Anganwadi unions in other states and organised the despatch of faxes and e-mails to the Maharashtra chief minister. All the district committees of Anganwadi Karmachari Sanghatana (AKS) and CITU worked hard to keep the agitation going on. State leaders of the AKS gave full attention to coordinate it at the state level. Many state and district leaders helped in continuation of the street actions for nearly two months in their respective districts. Thousands of activists worked hard and contributed immensely towards sustaining the struggle. The consistent struggle and public attention did bear some fruits and the finance minister agreed for a talk on January 23. He promised to sanction the amount demanded by the WCD department for retirement benefits and for a raise in honoraria as soon as the files came to him, place them in the cabinet meeting and get it passed. At a meeting on the same day, the WCD minister and secretary said a raise of Rs 1,000 for workers and Rs 500 for helpers was proposed and the file sent to the planning department. The Convenors Committee protested against the meagre increases, saying that the amounts were too less compared to states like Goa, Tamilnadu and Haryana. The committee also disagreed with the ratio of 100:50 for workers and helpers. In its meeting following the talks, the committee decided after a long discussion that though the amount of raise was too less, we should accept it for the time being in order to get the pension cleared immediately as a priority. The government requested the committee to call off the strike with effect from January 24; but the committee took the firm stand that it would call the strike off only after the cabinet meeting had taken the decisions. ASSURANCES BROKEN AGAIN The strike continued but other actions were suspended after the ministers assured that the decisions about retirement benefit and raise in honorarium were almost final while the sanctioning of 15 days medical leave in case of hospitalisation and one month summer vacation to be availed alternatively was under progress. The government asked for time to complete the procedure. The committee considered it and suspended its actions till January 29, in the hope that at least the decision about retirement benefit would be taken in the cabinet meeting on the day, as was promised. But the promise was not kept; the cabinet meeting did not take up these issues at all. The committee resumed the action programmes on January 30 at district level and called for a massive mobilisation in Azad Maidan again on February 4 and 5. The mobilisation on February 4 broke all the previous records; more than 25,000 workers and helpers gathered deciding not to go back without achieving something. They showed firmness to continue the strike if the government failed to decide on the retirement benefit and honoraria. The chief minister met a delegation late in the evening on February 4. He said the decision on one time retirement benefit was to be taken next day and requested for withdrawal of the strike. The delegation again told him that the strike would be withdrawn only after the cabinet had cleared the proposals. The workers stayed overnight in the Maidan. More women came next day in anticipation of the need of a more militant agitation in case the government failed to take any decision on February 5. One could see women all over the place; the Azad Maidan was overflowing. While the chief minister announced that the cabinet had sanctioned the retirement benefit of one lakh rupees for workers and 75,000 for helpers with 20 years of service, the other decisions did not come up. It was thus a partial victory though an important achievement. The unions had got the retirement benefits for the workers whom the government did not consider its employees at all. Though there was no raise in the honoraria, the government has promised to clear it in the next meeting. It was a tough time for the unions which had to decide about their next move --- whether to continue with the strike or call it off with partial achievement. The Kriti Samiti discussed it for more than two hours and considered all the pros and cons. At the end it decided to announce that it would suspend the strike for the time being. The fact was that workers had at least achieved retirement benefit for which they had had to struggle for a decade and which marked a qualitative change in their service conditions. The Samiti decided to call the strike off only after there was a raise in honoraria, which was in the process. That was a testing time for the unions that had to suspend the strike without any immediate relief in terms of quantitative monetary gain. Though promised by the government, the decision on honoraria was not taken on that day. It was not easy to convince the workers who had gathered there, and were ready for an action, to go back without an immediate gain. The workers and helpers went back with mixed feelings, full of confidence that if they could go on strike for a one full month, they could resume the struggle any time if the government went back on its word of raising the honoraria by 1000 and 500. IMMENE SUPPORT FROM OTHER SECTIONS The Samiti waited for the deadline of 15 days that it had given to the government to fulfil the promise of raising the honoraria. That expired on February 19. As the cabinet meetings held on February 12 and 18 did not take any decision, the Samiti again started its district level agitation on February 20 and once again thousands of workers thronged the streets on February 20 and 21. the Samiti also announced a Long March from Byculla to Azad Maidan in Mumbai on February 25 and an indefinite dharna from February 25 till the government took the decision. As the budget session of the assembly was to start on February 24 and was to run for five days, the cabinet met on February 23, a Sunday, and the chief minister announced the raise of Rs 950, 500 and 450 in the honoraria of Anganwadi workers, helpers and Mini Anganwadi workers respectively. The workers thus got both the benefits, i.e. retirement benefits and a raise, though the amount was less than what they had expected, lesser even than what was promised by the government itself. This achievement was made possible only through a long, militant and united struggle, while the government faced the compulsion not to antagonise a large number of field workers at the time of elections. It also realised that the masses too were sympathetic towards the struggle and demands of Anganwadi workers and could evaluate their contribution in the upbringing of their children when the workers stopped their work for full one month. Hundreds of village panchayats and many Zilla Parishads passed resolutions in favour of the striking workers, stating that their demands were just and that the government should fulfil them and get the Anganwadis reopened immediately. The government was taken aback by the immense support the workers got from the masses and also from the people’s representatives. While the struggle generated in the workers a faith in their immense power, it also brought forth a breed of good cadres, capable of organising their own sections as also other sections of the working people who are in their touch as beneficiaries of the scheme. It is a challenge for the Anganwadi workers’ movement to equip them now.