Basic health care workers at Anganwadi centres in Delhi formed a union, went on hunger strike and won unpaid wages.

Indian women march Delhi

After a sit-in protest of 23 days, and a hunger strike of 7, the government of Delhi has caved in to workers’ demands. The women workers were employed at Anganwadi Centres, which provide basic health services and are a crucial part of frontline health care in India.

Most of the workers had not been paid in 8 to 9 months, and a number of families were facing the prospect of starvation because many women are the sole breadwinner in their family. They were also demanding the issue of an identity card because without one, the supervisors harass them and force them to do jobs that are not part of their obligations.

The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, initially refused to meet with the workers. Kejriwal is national convenor of the anti-corruption, left of centre Aam Aadmi – “Common Man” – Party (AAP), which is the ruling party in Delhi.

But the women embarked on a dharna – a sit in protest – and a relay hunger strike to make their point. Dharna has been a popular form of protest since the Indian independence movement, when it was part of Ghandi’s satyagraha form of non-violent civil disobedience. 

The movement of Anganwadi workers grew with every day, especially after 19th July, when the relay hunger strike started. By 21 July, a thousand women were gathering at the dharna site every day, and by the 26th this had reached 3,500. The growing number of women workers on the site led to the closure of an increasing number of Anganwadi centres and created huge pressure on the government. The huge rally of 26th July jammed the Ring Road near Vidhan Sabha for more than an hour and police were helpless due to the large number of women workers

Besides the victory of the movement in terms of the demands won, the greatest achievement of the movement was the emergence of a new independent union of Anganwadi workers of Delhi, the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union (DSAWHU). NGOS and union federations affiliated to political parties approached the workers and urged them to end their action, but they held firm and asserted their independence.

On 28 July Arvind Kejriwal agreed to meet the workers’ representatives of the newly-formed DSAWHU. At the meeting he agreed to all their immediate demands, and resolved to take their long term political demands into consideration.

The Delhi government issued a written agreement to the union acknowledging that the government has accepted all demands. The Child and Women Development Minister Sandeep Kumar brought the letter of agreement to the venue of the dharna. It was a huge victory for the movement. About 3,000 workers took part in a victory march on July 29.

The legal advisor for the union, Shivani Kaul, said:

“The struggle has just begun. Until the Anganwadi women workers are given the formal recognition as workers by the government and all the legal entitlements of workers, the movement will continue. Right now, it is time to consolidate the victory of our immediate demands. However, we will soon launch a new movement for the fulfilment of our long-term demands.”

Union central committee member Radha said:

“Under the pressure of our movement, the Kejriwal government has increased the honorarium of Anganwadi workers from Rs. 5,000 (£50) to Rs. 6,000 (£60) for 4 hour work, and the honorarium of Anganwadi helpers from Rs. 2,500 (£25) to Rs. 3,000 (£30) for 4 hour work. The due salaries have been paid. However, we will struggle for the status of permanent workers from the government. For this very purpose, the union has called a general body meeting on August 9, Sunday.”

The union will  hold its first General Meeting on August 9. This meeting will discuss the future strategy for the Anganwadi workers’ movement and also the legal aspects of the struggle like the registration of the union. More than 2,000 union membership forms were collected during the strike.

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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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