September 19, 2021

Scheme Workers’ Strike for Basic Rights on Sept 24

A R Sindhu

THE Joint Platform of Scheme Workers, as part of their struggle for basic rights like job regularisation, minimum wages and social security etc, has given a call for one-day all India strike to be observed on September 24.
Scheme workers are workers of various schemes of the government of India, such as the ASHAs, Anganwadi workers and helpers, mid-day meal workers, National Health Mission workers, and such other government schemes. The joint platform consists of organisations of scheme workers affiliated to the central trade unions – INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, AICCTU, LPF and UTUC.

The government is totally dependent on the public sector health workers to address the current health crisis. They are the frontline workers and a crucial link between the government and the people in delivering basic schemes related to nutrition, education and health.

The shocking practice of sending these workers on Covid-19 duties without providing minimum safety gear like masks or sanitizers, especially during the second Covid wave that hit the country recently, is unpardonable. Moreover, many of them have been labelled as ‘carriers of corona’ and are being attacked by miscreants. Hundreds of workers are getting infected with Covid-19 and many of them are being deprived of medical treatment, let alone getting hospitalised. Hundreds of them died of corona and many succumbed to stress-related complications during the last one-and-half years.

Most of the families of the deceased are denied the much acclaimed compensation of Rs 50 lakh. From January 2021 onwards, many states have said that the scheme has been stopped. On the other hand, the scheme workers are continuing to risk their lives to fight the pandemic for public good.  The workers said that the government has paid them nothing except the Rs 1,000 per month as ‘additional incentive for Covid duty’ for ASHA workers, that too only for six months. The extension of this for further six months has been made optional and many of them didn’t get the benefit. 

Paying no heed to the recommendations of various fora including Parliamentary Standing Committees and 45th and 46th Indian Labour Conferences, the scheme workers are still not recognised as workers and are denied minimum wages. They lack social security or pension and even the meagre Rs 1000 per month due to the mid-day meal workers is not being paid regularly. Even their registration through e-Shram Portal was not properly facilitated and many scheme workers were left out.

It is appalling that the BJP government at the centre is determined to privatise important schemes related to health, nutrition and education by paving the way for corporates and NGOs. The National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) and proposals of privatisation of district hospitals etc have been made in the health sector. Even in the case of the ICDS project, the government has introduced direct cash transfers and made efforts to hand it over to NGOs and big corporates thus converting what was once a basic right into a charity service.

The direct cash transfer and inviting big corporates and NGOs to run centralised kitchens in mid-day meal schemes have impacted both the workers and the beneficiaries badly. The implementation of the three Farm Acts, especially, the Essential Commodities Act will be the death knell of the schemes like ICDS and MDMS that ensure food security.

At a time when the majority of the people are suffering from loss of income and the demand for universal free and quality public healthcare is high, the Modi government has slashed the allocation to schemes in the central budget 2021-22, adding to their miseries.  While the allocation for the mid-day meals scheme has been cut down by Rs 1,400 crore, that of ICDS  has been reduced by 30 per cent, there has been no substantial increase in NHM either leaving the frontline workers high and dry without even life insurance cover.

Even as payments for many of the workers are still pending in many states, in a move to survive the budget-cuts, the workers are being threatened with retrenchment and compulsory retirement without any ex gratia or pension, citing the guidelines from the government of India. The central government is trying to directly control the administration of the schemes bypassing the states. The introduction of various digital platforms, instead of decreasing the workload and facilitating transparency, are making the schemes more and more centralised. On the other hand, the financial burden of the states is continuously increased by decreasing the central share from the budget.

On May 14, CITU-affiliated scheme workers' federations protested demanding safety, with a slogan ‘phool nahi, suraksha do’ (we want safety, not flowers) against the Modi government. The struggle developed into a joint movement and the Joint Platform of Scheme Workers Federations called for a two-day strike of scheme workers on August 7 followed by mobilisations on August 9.

During this period there were militant struggles of scheme workers, especially the ASHA and Anganwadi workers in many states. There were indefinite strikes by ASHA workers unions in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand which forced the state governments to declare an increase in their wages.

However, the Modi-led NDA government is totally insensitive to the plight of the workers and the beneficiaries. In this background, taking the call of the joint platform of Central Trade Unions to intensify sectoral struggles on people’s issues, the joint platform of Scheme Workers’ Federations gave a call for an all India strike on September 24, 2021. The strike will be preceded by a massive campaign among the workers as well as beneficiaries. Strike notices have been issued by unions at block/district/state levels by holding demonstrations.

The government must ensure the safety, risk allowance, compensation etc to the frontline scheme workers immediately. They should be included in the category of workers and the recommendations of the 45th Indian Labour Conference on scheme workers should be implemented in a phased manner. The government should withdraw moves to privatise the schemes in any form.