Honorarium, Not Wage

ASHA and MDM Workers

Atanu Chakravarty

It was a spectacular showof strength. A splendid assertion of the hitherto invisible, faceless nameless women workers that scripted a new fighting chapter on January 29, 2024 at Esplanade, the busiest thoroughfare and one of the nerve centres of Kolkata. They were the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) workers of West Bengal coming from far flung districts in thousands and thousands with banners, festoons, flags of their unions and associations. Two rallies, one from Howrah station and the other from Sealdah culminated at Dorina crossing. Though this programme was informed well in advance to the state administration and the concerned department, no arrangement was made to accept the memorandum of the MDM workers. Such was the insensitivity and apathy towards this section of the population.

Visibly agitated, the MDM workers decided to block the junction of the busiest thoroughfare at Esplanade, with a resolve 'come what may', until their demand to meet their delegation by the concerned cabinet minister was met. But what are the causes behind this simmering anger and discontent that snowballed into such unprecedented assertion by working women?

Since the last two decades, approximately 2.5 lac women, from the most backward and marginalised section of the society are engaged in cooking mid-day meals for the students in government schools catering nearly 20 crores of students daily. Since 2013 they have been getting a paltry sum of Rs 1,500 monthly which is allotted to the self- help group (SHG) through which they are engaged, which means the per head amount varies from Rs 50 -250.Though they work for 12 months without any paid or sick leave, they are paid only for 10 months. After assuming power, the Modi government slashed the central allocation on this head from 75% to 60%, which means states will have to pay the rest share of 40%. Neither the Central government nor the state government recognise them as workers, they are deprived of the minimum wages, sans all social security benefits. Though the 45th--46th Indian Labour Conference (ILC), categorically recommended that the scheme workers (Asha-Mid day meal workers) should be recognised as workers, get government stipulated minimum wages and have social security benefits. But all these recommendations were not accepted neither by the UPA nor the NDA government and under Modi's dispensation ILC was not convened till date.

A number of states increased their state budget, hiked allotment both for the meals and honorarium ( the scheme workers get honorarium and not wages) eg, Puduchery Rs12,000, Tamil Nadu Rs 7,000-14,000, Haryana Rs 7,000, Kerala Rs 600 (daily), Himachal Pradesh Rs 4,000, Karnataka Rs 4,000, Odisha Rs 3,000. But not a single penny was increased for the MDM workers for years together in West Bengal. The global definition of employment( ILO) is that work is considered as employment where wages are paid .The scheme workers are not paid wages, they get honorarium, the quantum of which is fixed arbitrarily by the state. It’s worth mentioning that on December 15, 2020, the Allahabad High Court while delivering a judgement noted," persons employed as cooks throughout the State of Uttar Pradesh are being paid such paltry amounts which clearly qualify as forced labour." The Hon'ble High Court directed the state government and Union Government to ensure that cooks are not paid wages less than the minimum prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act. The court also observed that this is a gross violation of fundamental right enshrined in Article 23 and directed to pay the arrears of minimum wages for the last 15 years! (Chandrawati Devi vs State of UP And 6 others).

Both the Central and State governments have compromised on the vital aspect of nutrition. Of late, the United Nations noted that in India more than 74% children and women are undernourished.

After battling for years together, the unions and association of Mid-Day Meal workers realised that to fight against these injustices united move is essential. Three central trade unions, AICCTU-CITU -AIUTUC and independent organisations viz AMMA, PaschimBangaSwarojgari O Radhuni Union and PaschimbangaRandhankarmi Union firstly organised a convention on December 29, 2023 at University Institute Hall, College Street which was attended overwhelmingly by MDM workers and intellectuals of civil society and from that convention the march to Nabanna was accepted.

Huge deployment of police force could not pacify the women agitators and the police officers were forced to negotiate on behalf of the administration and government and a team met the respective officials to submit their seven- point demand, including hike in their honorarium, recognition as workers and minimum wages. The State Government at last in this year’s state budget announced a hike of Rs 500 as 'additional remuneration from April 2024 for MDM workers for ten months in a year'. Such additional financial assistance of Rs 500 was announced for the first time on 22.11.2013 for ten months in a year.

Thousands of ASHA workers across the state organised different forms of struggle and from March 1, struck work, refused to participate in the polio vaccination drive and warned of indefinite stoppage of work unless their demands are met. They were demanding revision of their remuneration, regularisation of their incentives, retirement benefit, social security etc.. The ASHA workers struck their work at the correct moment during the polio vaccination drive and the state government was forced to hike the remuneration of ASHA-ICDS workers to Rs 750 and Rs 500 respectively. Not only in West Bengal, the state governments of Odisha and Bihar also increased the remuneration of MDM and ASHA workers and to suppress the massive organise strike of ASHA workers at Telangana, the state government even went to the extent of declaring ESMA upon the striking workers!

The scheme workers, predominantly women, are the newly emerging section of the working class in India fighting against the Government of all hues for dignity, recognition as workers, for minimum wages, and social security. The code on social security has no place for this vast number of women workers representing the most marginalised and backward section of the society. These nameless faceless invisible caregivers are now on the street for their fair share. They constitute the most important informal workforce, which the society is yet to reckon with. On one side of the spectrum lies the most neglected, oppressed women workers all over India, and on the other end, the nationwide grandeur and pomp of International Women's Day celebration, tall talks of women empowerment sounds like the biggest hoax of the year!
This is the real face of Modi’sVikashit Bharat.

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Vol 56, No. 39, Mar 24 - 30, 2024