Vol. XLI No. 13 March 26, 2017

KARNATAKA: Twenty Thousand Anganwadi Workers occupy road to Vidhan Soudha

K Vasanth

KARNATAKA anganwadi workers are on an indefinite strike for the last three days (as on March 22, as we go to press) throughout the state. They are demanding legal minimum wage (of Rs 10,000 in Karnataka now for many identified sectors), making their posts permanent, social security benefits etc. There have been many strikes and marches to Vidhan Soudha in the last several years for the same demands. There was a three-day strike and march to Vidhan Soudha as recently as end of this January, and the state government had promised addressing their demands.  However, an increase of only Rs 1000 was announced in the budget. This betrayal has angered anganwadi workers. Anganwadi workers are being given Rs 6000 now and that has been increased to Rs 7000 in the budget. Similarly, anganwadi helpers are being paid Rs 3000 now and that has been increased to Rs 3500 in the budget.

About twenty thousand of anganwadi workers and helpers gathered on March 20 at the Bangalore City Railway Station in early hours and marched to Vidhan Soudha through Sheshadri Road. However, they were stopped by police near Maharani College. But they refused to disperse and sat on the road. They have been virtually occupying, and staging a dharna on Sheshadri Road, an arterial road connecting many parts of Bangalore, since then. This militant form of struggle took the government by surprise and made them even nervous, as budget session is in progress.

A flurry of activities started in the government and it started responding.  The principal secretary and the director of women and children welfare department came and addressed and appealed them to end occupying the street and continue dharna elsewhere.  Meanwhile they promised they will consult the concerned ministers, officials and try to address their demands. However, workers refused to end the dharna there and vacate the street. Varalaxmi, Meenakshisundaram (president and general secretary of CITU  Karnataka) and HS Sunanda (general secretary of Karnataka Anganwadi Workers Union) addressed striking workers. Towards evening, Umashree, minister for women and children welfare department again accompanied by principal secretary, director of women and children welfare department came, addressed them and appealed to end the struggle. The minister promised to arrange a meeting with the chief minister. She did try to arrange the meeting with CM, but nothing came of it.

Anganwadi workers decided to continue occupying the Sheshadri Road through the night.  Thousands of them slept on streets. They included pregnant women, mothers with infants, ailing aged. They were suffering from hunger, summer heat, exhaustion, lack of water and sanitation facilities. Yet they were determined to stay put.  However, they made a small compromise to allow one lane for vehicles in case of emergency. Despite all odds, singing and slogan shouting continued through the day and well into night.

Day two of the struggle saw dramatic developments. Opposition leaders from the JD(S) and BJP visited striking workers and expressed their support. Media – both dailies and TV channels that normally ignore working class struggles – had to cover it extensively, because of the impact that the struggle created. Pictures and videos of “Mothers who look after nation's children and mothers’ nutrition and health needs, sleeping on the Bangalore streets to catch attention for their demands” did strike an emotional chord. 

Anganwadi workers’ struggle sparked off heated discussions during the budget session on March 21st – second day of the struggle.  BJP and JD(S) members demanded acceding to workers demands, condemning the government for forcing “mothers to sleep on streets”. CM taunted BJP by reminding them that ICDS was basically a central scheme, with central financial support component of 90 percent. Modi government has not only cut the ICDS allocation drastically, but also reduced its support component down to 60 percent, since 2014. It had also never revised basic honorarium from Rs 3000. The last BJP state government also revised the honorarium only once, only by Rs 500 in their five-year rule. He lambasted the BJP that they do not have any 'moral right' to criticise their government. He challenged BJP leaders to pressurise the central government to restore 90 percent central responsibility, if they are genuinely sympathetic to workers’ demands. This remark led to scuffle between ruling and opposition members, resulting in adjournment of the house. 

Despite refusing to accede to anganwadi workers’ demands in the house, the CM met a delegation of anganwadi and CITU leaders on the mediation of Nidumamidi Swamiji  and Dr K Marulasiddappa who are sympathetic to the cause. The CM assured the delegation that he will fulfil the demands. But he is unable to announce now because of two constraints – budget session being in progress and code of conduct in force due to two assembly bye-elections. He however gave written commitment to call a meeting to discuss the issue on April 19. CM's office even issued press release that on the CM's assurances, anganwadi workers withdrew the strike, which was not true. The delegation only stated that they will consult workers and revert.

Leaders reported CM's assurances and asked for workers opinion. Workers unanimously rejected the CM's assurances and demanded that struggle should continue till there is a written assurance on honorarium increase to Rs 10,000. Anganwadi workers and CITU leadership rejected the so-called constraints cited by the CM. Workers shouted slogans “Lathicharge us or fire on us - we will not leave' and "Jail us, if you dare". Despite about eight workers seriously falling ill and getting hospitalised, workers decided to continue occupying the street for the second night.  

Anganwadi workers struggle sparked off debate in the media – especially the television media, through the second day. Anganwadi workers, CITU and CPI(M) leaders participating in the debates exposed the neoliberal, anti-labour policies of both the BJP led central and Congress led state governments. They pointed out that  Modi government had not only cut the ICDS allocation drastically, and  reduced its  support component down to 60 percent, but also did not implement ILC recommendation of increasing honorarium by Rs 3000 and  treating them as 'workers' for whom all labour laws are applicable. They also reminded the Congress led state government that despite these constraints, neighbouring Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Goa state governments are paying Rs 10,000 or more to anganwadi workers. They also shut BJP leaders’ mouths by citing the respect shown by Gujarat BJP government by arresting thousands of anganwadi workers on the Women’s Day!

Anganwadi workers are in a combat mood, and are continuing the struggle on the third day. More workers joined the struggle on the third day.