By Mathangi Subramanian
On a humid afternoon in 2014, a few blocks away from Freedom Park, I walked and walked until I saw them: a procession of women in red saris, suitcases balanced on their heads, children tugging on their arms, hair braided and threaded with fresh jasmine.
That January day, I was joining over 6,000 women who had come together for the annual statewide rally of anganwadi workers and helpers—the same rally that, this year, has drawn over 10,000 workers and jammed Bangalore’s roads.
These were the women who staffed India’s Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS), the largest public early childhood care and education system in the world, serving approximately 91 million children in 1.2 million centres. The ICDS all-female workforce was responsible for eradicating polio in India, and for the fight against childhood malnutrition across the country. They conduct our censuses, man our voter booths, and—through their work in educating young children—reduce our crime rates, improve our earning potential, and decrease both early marriage and school drop-out rates.
All of this, and some of them couldn’t even afford shoes.
In 2010, Nobel prize winner James Heckman scientifically proved that early childhood education (ECE) provides governments with a 7:1 return on investment. The return comes from an increase in employability, a reduction in incarceration, and an increased income potential, among other benefits. Globally, this result has been repeated, proving beyond doubt that investment in early childhood education is perhaps the single most important thing a country can do to ensure a secure future.
In theory, the international community’s enthusiastic support of these studies should have translated into better facilities, higher quality learning materials, and, of course, higher salaries and better training for early childhood educators.
And yet, in Karnataka, anganwadi workers are paid Rs 7,000 a month, and helpers are paid Rs 3500. This is on the higher end of the scale. When I attended the nationwide protest in Delhi in 2013, workers from northern Indian states told me they were living off of Rs 1500 monthly. Many of these women were the sole breadwinners for extended networks of children, grandparents, siblings, and spouses. Impossibly, they were somehow able to use this money to keep their families afloat.
In 2014, I went to the strike to support the women participating in an ethnographic study I conducted over the course of two years. Together, we sat cross legged on the pavement, eating spicy potato chips and half-listening to the speeches union leaders delivered through staticky microphones on the flatbed of a truck that served as a makeshift stage. The speakers shook their fists and demanded recognition for the labor they do every day, the majority of which—like most care work—is invisible.
The Indian government justifies these low salaries by deeming anganwadi workers and helpers “volunteers,” claiming that they are only required to work half days, and therefore are not eligible for pensions, medical insurance, or paid vacation.
During my research—in which I travelled to three states and met over a hundred workers—I never met a single worker who stuck to this schedule. Their afternoons were spent conducting home visits, making materials for their classrooms, or planning the next day’s lesson. This, of course, was when they didn’t have to do additional unpaid mandatory work, such as administering pulse polio vaccines, conducting area censuses, or accompanying children and families to hospitals to treat conditions related to malnutrition.
Take, for example, the women who met me at the strike. There was Varalakshmi, who taught her migrant students in four different languages, and who came to class daily with a dozen eggs to distribute to her hungriest students. (Her rations never showed up on time, so she bought the eggs herself.)
There was Sujatha, who had trained to be a private school teacher, and who showed up to work bleary-eyed after spending the night hand-drawing educational materials she used to produce for her much wealthier students. She took me with her once to speak to the local leader, hoping that my American accent would help her get the grant she needed to buy new educational materials. (It didn’t.)
There was Sumitra, who occasionally left me in charge of her class while she ran out to help women open bank accounts, procure birth certificates, and even register to vote. She was a particularly fierce advocate for her migrant students, whose families came from as far away as Assam and Nepal, connecting them with services and the legal documents necessary to continue in school. Despite my years teaching in American classrooms and my advanced degree, Sumitra’s students informed me that I was really not as good of a teacher as Sumitra Miss. (They were right.)
Care work is not just exhausting, physically and emotionally—it is also highly-skilled. Negotiating government systems in multiple languages, advocating on behalf of low caste, low literacy families, knowing what types of services are available and how to access them—none of this is simple. However, since the work is usually that of women, it is rarely given the credit it deserves.
It is impossible to say whether the same wages and conditions would hold if the workforce were fully or even partially male.
This year, I’m heartened to see extensive coverage of the annual workers’ rally and strike, which has finally led to some kind of response from the government, even if it is inadequate. What will it take for the workers to be valued for who they truly are: the government’s largest and most effective grassroots workforce successfully administering the most effective anti-poverty programme that we know?
One of the first interviews I conducted with an anganwadi worker was in 2012, when I spoke to a worker from Tamil Nadu at the All India Anganwadi Workers and Helpers protest in Delhi. Kaveri (name changed) told me she was fighting for higher wages because, “I’m the main income… Not just me. A lot of people are like me. They can’t manage. Lots of people are widows, unsupported women. If they just give this salary, how can they manage? If they have one or two children, how can they educate them? Lots of them have financial problem”.
Kaveri has been an anganwadi worker since 1982, when her salary was just a few hundred rupees a month. She told me that before she started this job, she was like “a fly in a flower,” a Tamil idiom for women who are excessively shy. Now, though, she leads her local union. When I asked her if, after 30 years of campaigning, she was discouraged by the lack of government response, she smiled and told me, “Although we’re fighting for our salaries, we’re also fighting for the children.”
Indeed, two years later, when I attended the rally in Bangalore, I noticed that none of the helpers had come. When I asked Sujatha about it, she said, “Someone has to be at the centres. What about the children?”
Today, anganwadi workers and helpers continue to march for India’s children. It’s about time that India’s government responded by doing something for the women as well.
All photos courtesy PeeVee