Prema Aswale, an anganwadi worker (AWW) in her mid-30s from Wada taluka in Maharashtra's Palghar district, recently had to pawn her gold chain to fund the expenses of providing eggs to over 20 children and meals to around 10 pregnant women and lactating mothers in her village. The meals are to be provided under the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Amrut Aahar Yojana, but delayed reimbursements under the scheme mean many workers like her have had to shell out money from their own pockets for the past six months.
Aswale said, "The cost of one egg tray has gone up to Rs 160 and I need around one tray daily, depending on the number of beneficiaries. Besides, we have to cook the meal under the scheme ourselves, and that costs us Rs 35 per plate. We shell out roughly Rs 10,000 every month while we are paid an honorarium of Rs 7,000 to 8,000. But even those payments are inconsistent. We are not so financially sound, so we work on credit with the local vendor. I'm a single mother with two college-going kids; how can I manage my household expenses with this meagre income?"
Aswale was one of the several anganwadi workers who had participated in a protest spearheaded by the Anganwadi Workers' Union in Wada on 17 January. Delayed reimbursements under the Amrut Aahar scheme constituted one of the reasons for the protest, held near the Wada Taluka Panchayat Samiti (see list below for the union's other demands). For most, the reimbursements have been pending since June 2019, and amount to a total of roughly Rs 50,000 to 60,000 per anganwadi worker. While some AWWs in Jawhar have not been compensated since April 2019.
Stating that they are no longer able to bear the expense of providing one-time nutritious meals to pregnant women and lactating mothers in tribal areas with a tiny honorarium, the AWWs hinted that they would stop spending on it altogether from February if the state doesn't reimburse their money sooner. However, the zilla parishad office of Palghar district maintains that the funds (of over Rs six crore) have been allotted to the district, however, there is no indication as to when the workers will receive the payment.
Anganwadi centres, with women as its foot soldiers, are aimed at fighting child malnutrition and ensuring children's overall development. Delayed monthly honorariums, pending raises and reimbursements for schemes are some of the many woes faced by the AWWs of the district that have sparked protests in the past few years.
. The AWW has to cook the meal herself and also provide for children in the age group of seven months to three years with an egg or banana on alternate days. The AWW has to bear the initial expense of both the meals (Rs 35 per plate) and eggs (Rs six per child) for which she is later reimbursed. The costs run up to Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 on a monthly basis depending on the number of present beneficiaries.
Lack of connectivity
While there are monetary issues to be resolved, AWWs also have to deal with several other challenges. Their struggles, especially faced by those AWWs operating their centres from remote hilly tribal areas, are hardly visible. To begin with, some padas (hamlets) like Bhivalpada in Ase village of Mokhada Taluka do not even have a cellphone tower.
"We are practically cut off from the outside world since there is no network in the village,” says Yogita Vaje, a 35-year-old AWW lives in Dhamodi area of Ase village. “We cannot receive any updates on our honorarium or on meetings unless we climb up that hill to talk to our supervisor and upload our daily data on the beneficiaries with a selfie on the Common Application Software (CAS) app which is mandatory,” she says pointing at one of the hills surrounding the quaint, secluded hamlet which is the last point of the taluka.
Vaje has to hike across a six-kilometre-long rocky path back and forth daily to reach her anganwadi centre in Bhivalpada. "It becomes difficult to get any sort of supplies like vegetables to prepare the meals for my 10 beneficiaries (pregnant women and lactating mothers) or buy egg trays for the 36 children. We have to go to Mokhada (30 kilometres from Bhivalpada) once a week to get the supplies. The commute becomes all the more tedious if we miss the early morning bus as the frequency of the buses here is very less. Once in a while, the vendor manages to come to Dhamodi, but doesn’t agree to drop the supplies to Bhivalpada since the road is very rocky and not yet properly paved. It burns a hole in our pockets to spend Rs 200 back and forth every week when we are already struggling to make ends meet," Vaje said.
Vaje manages to source rice and daal from her family farm which, she says, reduces some of her expenses. "I can still arrange for rice and daal, but what about the ones who do not own any farm and are completely dependent on their income? Our pay has never been regular, we always had to wait for a couple of months to clear our credits with the local vendors. If only we had received the payment in advance or at least once in two months regularly we wouldn't have had such problems," she rued.
Delay in receiving funds
According to Rajesh Singh, leader of the state's Anganwadi Karmachari Sangh who spearheaded the protest in Palghar, "The AWWs of the entire district are suffering. Their honorarium is never on time, to begin with. They haven't even received the honorarium for December yet. After my meeting with the authorities concerned, they confirmed that some amount has been allotted to respected ICDS project offices in different talukas by the district's zilla parishad. However, it's not certain if the AWWs will receive the money immediately because it is a tedious procedure. Our question is: How is an AWW supposed to feed the poor tribal pregnant women and lactating mothers when she cannot afford it herself? Won't the beneficiaries be affected if they are not provided nutritious food? Won’t it aggravate the issue of malnutrition which is already so prevalent in these tribal regions?"
An AWW supervisor from Jawhar, on condition of anonymity, admitted that in some anganwadis of Jawhar taluka the workers have stopped providing meals since January till they receive their reimbursement. "We have their complaints in writing that they would stop preparing meals. But the ones who can afford a little continue to provide meals. They are helpless,” she said.
Twenty-four-year-old Bharati Paradhi, mother of a five-month-old from Juni Jawhar, usually receives her plate of rice, dal, pulses and an egg by noon. When asked if she receives her meal regularly, she says, "Most of the times it is regular but sometimes we don’t get eggs or bananas depending on the availability."
Although the officials at the ICDS office in Wada, Mokhada and Jawhar talukas have confirmed that they have received funds for the months from July to August 2019, they said that processing the payment may take another 10 days. Mayuri Karpe, Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) of Kudus region, said: "Ideally the money should have been given in advance, but it's mentioned in the government resolution that the anganwadi workers would be reimbursed. While we understand the hardships they (AWWs) have to go through, there are about 271 anganwadis in Wada and 139 in Kudus, disbursing money takes time. Our hands are tied. We pay them as soon as we receive funds from the higher-ups. For now, we have received funds up to September, but we still have to demand for the rest of months. The amount should be deposited by next week."
While the CDPO of Wada taluka, Goraskshak Khorse, said that they will soon be reimbursing the money for eggs and bananas for the six months, for the Amrut Aahar meal they are still on hold.
Deputy CEO Palghar, ICDS, Rajendra Patil was unavailable for comment despite several attempts.
The pain of not receiving honorariums or reimbursements despite the relentless efforts by anganwadi workers in Palghar, in poor working conditions, not only demands urgent attention but also an empathetic approach.
The article is written under the Public Health Fellowship sponsored by Thakur Family Foundation
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2020 10:27:35 IST