The government of Karnataka needed a hundred women. It was 1982, the new Integrated Child Development Services scheme was about to launch in the state, and according to the advertisement in the local newspaper, these work opportunities were available specifically for women who had completed Class 10.

Ameenabi Kausar was immediately interested. For a 23-year-old woman from the tiny town of Holalkere, 230 km north of Bengaluru, she had already come a long way. She had studied up to Class 10, learnt how to type in both Kannada and English, and had spent four years as a typist at various municipal offices. She was proud to contribute to her meagre family income, even if it was contract-based, daily-wage work.

But an actual government job under a new government scheme – who would miss out on such an opportunity? Ameenabi sent in her application, sailed through the interview, underwent four months of training and soon began working in the village of Cheeranahalli, 40 km from her home, where she was posted.

There, she finally realised the magnitude of her new job and its significance in India’s development as a nation.

Ameenabi was an anganwadi worker, a foot soldier in India’s first nationwide programme to tackle child malnutrition and morbidity. Her primary responsibility was a daunting one: to reduce death and disease among young children in her jurisdiction.

“Back in those days it was common to hear of babies dying of weakness and hunger. I remember seeing such cases around me too,” said Ameenabi, now aged 63.

But nothing could have prepared her for how little her work would be valued by the highest levels of the government and judiciary, and how hard she would have to fight for it throughout her 36-year career.

Ameenabi, who is now 63, was a petitioner in a case that went up to the Supreme Court. The petitioners demanded that anganwadi workers be recognised as government employees. Photos: Aarefa Johari

The role of anganwadi workers was created under a programme launched by the Indian government in 1975, to combat child mortality. Called the Integrated Child Development Services, it involved the setting up of anganwadis, or courtyard shelters, in almost every village and urban slum community in the country. Even today, these serve as creches where children up to six years of age are provided with nutrition, monitored for their health and given informal pre-school education. Each centre is run by a two-woman team of an anganwadi worker and a helper.

Today, most rural anganwadi centres are one- or two-room structures for between 30 and 35 children. But when Ameenabi began her work in 1982, she had over 100 children in her care and no anganwadi building. “For the first few years, we ran the anganwadi from under a tree,” she said.

Ameenabi’s list of duties was extensive. Along with her anganwadi helper, she would cook meals based on the nutritional requirements prescribed by the ICDS scheme, and feed the children by hand. Three to four hours of the day were spent teaching, followed by detailed record-keeping. She had to maintain records of the children’s attendance, the amount of food they ate, their height and weight (which she measured every week), their immunisation calendars and symptoms of malnutrition. If any child was severely undernourished, she had to ensure they were hospitalised and rehabilitated.

In the afternoons, Ameenabi and her helper would carry out house visits, counselling parents about nutrition, convincing them to vaccinate their children and keeping track of pregnancies, births, deaths and family incomes in the village. Because of their familiarity with the local community, anganwadi workers were also given duties beyond the ICDS scheme: administering medicines to tuberculosis patients, tracking the number of widows and disabled persons, and even conducting cattle surveys. “Arre bohut kaam tha, bohut kaam,” Ameenabi said. “There was too much work.”

For all that labour, Ameenabi was paid barely Rs 120 a month through the 1980s, while the anganwadi helper was paid Rs 50 – well below the average wages of even low-level government clerks. “I used to earn more as a typist,” she said.

“Initially we thought this was just temporary,” she said. “We thought that the government would eventually make our posts permanent and give us full salaries. But that day never came.”

In 1996, Ameenabai, three other anganwadi workers and their union appealed to Karnataka’s administrative tribunal for recognition as state government employees. The tribunal ruled in their favour in 1996. But the Karnataka government appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court. Instead of upholding the rights of India’s frontline women workers, in 2006, the Supreme Court dealt a crushing blow to their hopes, rejecting their demand for formal jobs.

A decade and a half later, anganwadi workers continue to protest year after year. In the past three months itself, thousands of anganwadi workers have spent many weeks protesting on the streets in Delhi and Haryana.

These protests wouldn’t have been necessary if the Supreme Court had rejected the government’s controversial contention that the women who work in anganwadis were mere “volunteers” to be paid “honorariums”.

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The website of India’s ICDS scheme describes an anganwadi worker as “a lady selected from the local community” who acts as an “agent of social change” by “mobilizing community support for better care of young children, girls and women”.

“This is a very gendered division of labour, where care work is performed by women,” said economist Reetika Khera. “This care work is done outside the domain of the house, but the women are still not paid enough for their work. This reinforces the idea that care work is something women are meant to do, rather than economic work that deserves fair compensation.”

Since ICDS is funded by both the Centre and states, honorariums paid to anganwadi workers differ in different states. While a number of states are in the process of revising their honorariums, among those that pay the lowest is Chhattisgarh, where workers get as little as Rs 4,700 a month and helpers get Rs 2,350. At the higher end of the spectrum is Haryana, where workers are paid Rs 11,800, and helpers Rs 6,045. Anganwadi workers noted that in most states, their pay was lower than the state’s minimum wage.

“We serve as both healthcare workers and educators, so if we were treated as government workers, we would deserve to get at least Rs 25,000 a month,” said M Jayamma, an anganwadi worker in Bengaluru and the general secretary of the Karnataka State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Federation.

The federation is one of several state-level organisations under the All India Trade Union Congress, a national labour union affiliated to the Communist Party of India.

Ameenabi has been a member of this organisation for the past 35 years. I met her on a warm March afternoon in Holalkere, in Chitradurga district, in the blue-walled two-room apartment that she shares with her husband, a fruit juice vendor. Dressed in a starched peach salwar-kameez, her eyes twinkling behind thick-framed glasses, she was more than eager to talk about the Supreme Court case that had let her down 15 years ago.

With her was 67-year-old T Gangamma, also one of the four anganwadi workers who were party to the case. Gangamma, too, lives in Holalkere. The other two workers listed in the case – Chikkamala and R Mariyamma – were from Mysore district and died a few years ago, after their retirement.

Gangamma, now 67, was one of the petitioners in the "Ameerbi" case. Anganwadi workers perform a wide range of tasks, including ensuring children's nutrition and monitoring their health.

All four women had begun their careers as anganwadi workers in the 1980s. They were all union members, and had often been at the forefront of protests against the state and Central governments for anganwadi workers’ rights.

“We have gathered anganwadi workers from every taluka in every district, and we have fought for every small improvement in our working conditions,” Ameenabi said. “But what we really wanted was to be given proper employee status.”

In 1992, the trade union’s leaders in Bengaluru decided to attempt the legal route towards this goal. They chose to approach the administrative tribunal, a body specifically created to examine service conditions and settle disputes concerning government and public sector employees. The Karnataka tribunal’s first response was to dismiss the union’s application: since anganwadi workers were not civil servants, the tribunal claimed the case did not fall under its jurisdiction.

Dismayed, the union then approached the Karnataka High Court with a public interest litigation in 1995. Before the High Court could proceed with the case, however, three new Supreme Court judgements helped the union pivot back to the tribunal. The three cases pertained to workers who were not directly employed by various state governments, but carried out contractual or casual jobs for them. In its judgements, the Supreme Court held that administrative tribunals did have jurisdiction over disputes involving such workers.

In 1996, therefore, the trade union filed its second application with the Karnataka administrative tribunal. Because Ameenabi, Gangamma, Chikkamala and Mariyamma were the most experienced and outspoken anganwadi workers in the union, they were invited to be the primary petitioners in the case.

“There was some fear about getting stuck in a court case, but we were leaders among the anganwadi workers and we immediately agreed to participate,” said Ameenabi, who signed up as the first petitioner.

Since legal cases are typically named after the first petitioners and respondents, this case should have been called “Ameenabi and others versus State of Karnataka”. A typist preparing the case documents, however, misread Ameenabi’s name as Ameerbi. This error was carried forward all the way up to the Supreme Court and beyond: even today, all references to the 2006 judgement in government documents and other court cases across the country describe it as the “Ameerbi and others” case. “But this Ameerbi does not even really exist!” Ameenabi said, laughing heartily.

The second attempt at the administrative tribunal proved to be a success. Not only did the tribunal agree that it had jurisdiction over anganwadi workers, it also provided clear reasons for why they should be recognised as government employees.

The government has often characterised anganwadi workers as volunteers from the community who “come forward to render their services” on a “part-time basis”. These claims run counter to the fact that most anganwadi workers spend over eight hours a day at work, and that state governments solicit their services through public advertisements and interview-based recruitment. The Central and state governments also have the power to suspend, transfer or fire anganwadi workers, and cut or withhold their remuneration based on their performance.

According to the Karnataka administrative tribunal, the control exerted by the state government over every aspect of anganwadi staffers’ work was a clear indication of the “master and servant” relationship between them. It quoted previous Supreme Court judgements to point out that a person carrying out the work of a government department, in a post that is under the department’s control, can be considered a civil servant – be it part-time or full-time work. The tribunal asked the state government to formulate, within four months, a new scheme or new rule to formally regularise anganwadi jobs.

For Ameenabi and other anganwadi workers, this tribunal order was a validation of all their protests for over a decade. “We were so happy, we thought we would finally be given permanent jobs and better pay,” said Gangamma. “We didn’t realise that the government would fight us in the Supreme Court and that our case would be stuck there for so many years.”

When the Karnataka government appealed the tribunal order in the Supreme Court, it claimed that anganwadi workers were “merely a conduit” for implementing some social welfare schemes, and therefore the scheme only provided for posts that were honorary, to be filled by community volunteers. The state government also made the Centre a party to the case. The ICDS, after all, was a central scheme implemented by the states, and a decision to create sanctioned, regularised posts for anganwadi workers could only be made by the Centre.

On behalf of anganwadi workers, senior lawyer Indira Jaising claimed that paying them less than minimum wage would “amount to beggary”.

She also argued that the Supreme Court already had well-established tests to determine whether or not a worker holds a civil post. In the past, she argued, the Court had deemed part-time, casual workers in the Indian Railways to be civil servants, so why treat anganwadi workers differently?

The Supreme Court’s eventual judgement, by a bench of judges Markandey Katju and SB Sinha, seemed to make a number of contradictory statements. It acknowledged that anganwadi workers have an extremely important role in their villages and in society, and that they carry out a large number of activities. But it claimed that “anganwadi workers do not carry on any function of the State”, and that the ICDS scheme has not created any sanctioned posts for their employment.

The Court also indicated that having a “master-servant” relationship between workers and a government body did not automatically mean the workers were civil servants. “It is one thing to say that there exists a relationship of employer and employee by and between the State and Anganwadi workers,” the judgement said. “But it is another thing to say that they are holders of civil post.”

Finally, the Court also dismissed the anganwadi workers’ plea for minimum wages. The Minimum Wages Act is only applicable to workers in specified industries, and since the ICDS scheme is not an industry, the Court claimed that anganwadi workers could not qualify as industrial workers, and so were not eligible for minimum wages.

The judgement would go on to be cited in other cases involving anganwadi workers. In 2011, for instance, the Delhi High Court relied on the “Ameerbi” case to dismiss a plea by the Akhil Bharatiya Anganwadi Kamgar union seeking regularisation of anganwadi workers’ posts

An anganwadi in Holalkere. In 2006, the Supreme Court rejected the anganwadi workers' petition to be recognised as government employees, and even denied them minimum wages.

Fifteen years after he represented the Karnataka government in the “Ameerbi” case, advocate Sanjay Hegde pointed out that the Supreme Court’s ruling was not unexpected. “In cases where honorary workers seek regularisation of their jobs, courts typically take the view that they cannot tell the government to create sanctioned posts,” Hegde said. “That would be a decision for the executive, because posts are created not only on the basis of necessity but also financial feasibility.”

Hegde accepted, however, that the system of honorariums makes it difficult for anganwadi workers and other honorary workers to make ends meet. The government is “aware of the problem,” he said. “But they keep grinding away on the shoulders of many people who have little power.”

At the executive level, there have been some attempts to convince the central government to regularise anganwadi jobs. The Indian Labour Conference in 2013 did not mince words while recommending that anganwadi workers should “first be recognised as workers and not volunteers or honorary workers”. The labour ministry defines the conference as the highest-level “consultative committee” in the ministry “to advise the government on the issues concerning working class of the country”. In 2015, the conference repeated this recommendation – both times, however, the central government ignored it.

In 2018, Supriya Sule, a parliamentarian from Maharashtra’s Nationalist Congress Party, introduced a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha for the welfare of anganwadi workers and helpers. One of the key components of the bill was the regularisation of their jobs. This bill, too, made no further progress in Parliament. In fact, in 2019, women and child development minister Smriti Irani made it clear in the Lok Sabha that the Centre had no plans to regularise anganwadi workers.

Irani’s ministry did not respond to email queries by about its current views on the regularisation of anganwadi jobs.

Advocate Muralidhara, who assisted the late senior lawyer representing the anganwadi workers in the “Ameerbi” case at the Karnataka tribunal in 1996, no longer believes that they should pursue their demand for civil posts. “Instead, they should demand a welfare board for anganwadis,” he said. This board, he explained, could apply to the labour ministry to be recognised as an industry. “That way, they will be able to get all the benefits enjoyed by industrial workers under the Industrial Disputes Act.” This includes pensions, provident funds, insurance – and minimum wages.

Throughout the 10-year trajectory of the “Ameerbi” case, Ameenabi and the other petitioners did not really need to appear in court. After submitting their statements and affidavits, they kept up with news about the case through the lawyers and senior union leaders. When the Supreme Court verdict was delivered in December 2006, however, they were in the dark about it for a whole month.

“Our leaders did not have the heart to break it to us,” said Ameenabi. “After all the years of waiting, the Supreme Court left us feeling bitter and disappointed and so angry. But what could we do?”

Across the country, anganwadi workers, trade unionists and other activists had similar reactions.

AR Sindhu, the general secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, said that the Supreme Court judgement left workers feeling demoralised for years. “It was a crushing conclusion. The Court did not give clear reasons for why anganwadi workers should not be given the status of government workers,” she said. With no support from the highest court of law, Sindhu said that most unions have now focused their energies solely on organising ground protests to pressurise the government to provide anganwadi workers with pensions and better remuneration.

Economist Dipa Sinha said that the Supreme Court order was as confused as the government’s stand on anganwadi workers. “They treat them as employees, but call them volunteers,” she said.

This double standard has become increasingly evident in recent years, as the government dumps more and more work on the shoulders of anganwadi workers. Last year, for instance, the Centre imposed the Poshan Tracker app on the workers, demanding that they maintain all records and file all data related to their ICDS work online. Even though the app was replete with glitches and available only in English, and most anganwadi workers were not given a smartphone to use the app with, the Centre threatened to deduct the salaries of workers who failed to record data on the app.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, anganwadi workers were expected to carry out the duties of essential healthcare workers, going door-to-door to screen villagers for symptoms, ensuring the sick quarantined, and also delivering rations to families with children. “We risked our lives for the community, but when some of our anganwadi workers died of Covid, their families did not get the Rs 5 lakh compensation that was promised to healthcare workers,” said Rekha Kuhad, a 53-year-old anganwadi worker from Mouda town in Maharashtra’s Nagpur district.

Rekha has personally experienced her state government’s double standards in the political arena. Since anganwadi workers are officially considered volunteers, the ICDS scheme technically allows them to contest elections – something that government employees cannot legally do. In 2006, however, a Maharashtra government circular specifically banned anganwadi workers and helpers from contesting local body elections, Rekha recounted. The state chapter of the All India Trade Union Congress filed a petition in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, arguing that the ban was not tenable if the government insisted that anganwadi workers are not civil servants.

In 2007, the High Court ruled in favour of the union. Within months, Rekha won Mouda’s gram panchayat election and served a five-year term. “Most often when women stand for elections, their husbands are the ones who are really doing the work,” Rekha said. “But 90% of us anganwadi workers are qualified enough to get elected on our own merit. We work in the community all the time, so we know everyone’s needs.”

In 2010, halfway through Rekha’s term, the state government issued a new circular. It stipulated that if an anganwadi worker won any election, she could not continue working in the ICDS scheme – she would have to step down from either one of her posts. “I too was served a notice asking me to resign from my anganwadi post,” said Rekha, who stood her ground by arguing that the new rule could not be retrospectively applied to a panchayat member who was already in office.

The All India Trade Union Congress appealed against this new rule in Maharashtra – the case is still pending in the High Court. Meanwhile, for the past decade, Rekha has had to suppress her desire to contest elections again. “I would give up the anganwadi job if I didn’t need the income to run my household,” she said.

She added, “After all the work we do for the development of the country, the government only gives us bheekh,” or alms. “Is this what they mean when they keep talking about treating women with respect?”

Rekha’s allusion is to a complaint that anganwadi workers and activists have long had about the gendered nature of what the State terms “volunteer” work. Nearly all of India’s frontline workers dealing with child development, nutrition and healthcare for women and children are women. This includes not just anganwadi workers and helpers, but also midday meal workers who cook meals for primary school children, as well as trained community health workers, such as auxiliary nurse midwives and ASHAs, or accredited social health activists. All of these women are considered honorary workers and get paid honorariums.

Among other workers in India who are forced to spend decades as “volunteers” in schemes that deny them their rights or fair wages, are sanitation workers. In Mumbai, for instance, thousands of sanitation workers are paid paltry honorariums in the name of “community involvement” in solid waste management schemes. While labour tribunals, the High Court and the Supreme Court have repeatedly upheld the rights of these workers to permanent employment, the municipal corporation has blatantly disregarded court orders for years. Unsurprisingly, almost all of these sanitation workers are Dalits.

The denial of employee status has long-term economic implications for anganwadi workers. The ICDS scheme prioritises women who are either widowed or from socially or economically vulnerable backgrounds, so the absence of fair compensation is particularly cruel to them.

In Holalkere, Gangamma was widowed at the age of 37, with no land to her name or children to count on for support in her later years. Her honorarium was never enough to support herself, and she was forced to depend on her sister’s marital family. She retired in 2014 after years of service, but was left without a pension. “Today I live with my sister’s daughter and her husband in a room that they rent, and I am completely dependent on them,” said Gangamma. “They also have their own children to look after, but at least my situation is better than some other anganwadi workers who have been forced to beg on the streets after retirement.”

Ameenabi and her husband have three married daughters, and now depend on them to pay most of their expenses, including their monthly rent of Rs 5,000. “I also have a blood sugar problem for which medicines cost Rs 2,500 a month,” said Ameenabi, who also has a damaged nerve in her eye but no money to seek medical help.

“Money has already become a big problem since I retired, so it is scary to think about the future,” she said. “What if we develop more problems as we grow older and our daughters cannot afford to pay?”

Nirmala, another retired anganwadi worker in Holalkere, also survives without a pension. Nirmala, who is 70 years old and goes by one name, is not destitute, thanks to a family full of people with government jobs. Her aged mother, a widow, gets Rs 12,000 a month as pension from her late father’s job in the police. Her sister, also a widow, earns a pension of Rs 20,000 after having retired from her job in the state government’s social welfare department.

“My sister was a receiving officer at a beggars’ home, so her job mainly involved taking down beggars’ details and enrolling them into the home,” said Nirmala, who cannot help feeling wronged by the state government. “Both of us are graduates, but she gets such a big pension for working in just one department. I spent my life implementing schemes from multiple government departments, but I get no pension at all.”

Anganwadi workers do not need to look far to notice such glaring disparities. Within the ICDS, they – and the anganwadi helpers – are the only ones arbitrarily designated as “honorary” workers. All the other staff members are government employees with permanent jobs. This includes the supervisors who oversee small clusters of anganwadis, the child development project officers at the district level, assistants, clerks, drivers and peons.

“Our supervisors not only earn a salary of Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 a month, they also get travel allowance, which we don’t get,” said Rekha Kuhad in Nagpur. “And yet, their jobs exist because of our hard work on the ground. Their promotions and evaluations are dependent on our success. How is this fair?”

Almas Parveen, an anganwadi worker in Holalkere, prepares nutrient-rich laddus for children. Since they are not recognised as government employees, anganwadi workers struggle to make ends meet after they retire.

In one of Holalkere’s anganwadis, 44-year-old worker Almas Parveen had succinct words to describe the problem. “Tomorrow if ICDS is stopped and anganwadis are shut down, malnutrition and hunger and death will rise again,” said Parveen. As long as the problem of poverty persists, she added, families will need to depend on anganwadis – and the labour of anganwadi workers and helpers – to nourish their pregnant women and young children.

This is a sobering perspective, given that India has one of the worst rates of child undernutrition in the world, and ranked 94th out of 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index in 2020.

“And still, the government does not value the work we do,” Parveen said.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.