New Delhi: Amid rising Covid cases in Uttar Pradesh, anganwadi (rural childcare centre) workers in the state are not just concerned about their health, but also say they feel “cheated” by the Yogi Adityanath government.
According to them, the government has made promises to them with an eye on this year’s polls, but hasn’t delivered on its commitment to compensate the families of anganwadi employees who died while working as frontline health workers during the earlier Covid waves.
In May last year, as the deadly second wave began to ebb, the UP government announced that Rs 50 lakh would be given as compensation to the families of 72 anganwadi workers who died after contracting Covid. In UP, anganwadi workers were tasked with conducting house-to-house checks, distributing medicine kits, and sharing updates on symptomatic people with district authorities.
However, many anganwadi workers are sceptical about the government’s promises, claiming that seven months after the Rs 50 lakh compensation was announced, very few families have received it.
ThePrint called several officials of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), under which anganwadis operate, to find out about the status of the disbursement, but was able to get a response only from joint project coordinator Seraj Ahmed, who said that so far only “12 anganwadi workers and one helper have received the compensation”.
When requested to provide the details of the 13 beneficiary families, Ahmed told ThePrint that he needed authorisation from his superiors before releasing any information.
Navneet Sehgal, Uttar Pradesh additional chief secretary (information), said this in response to ThePrint’s queries about most anganwadi workers’ families not receiving the compensation: “Staff is collecting information.” When this information is made available to ThePrint, we will update the story.
Of late, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister has been effusive in his praise of anganwadi workers and their community health work. In September last year, he distributed 1.23 lakh smartphones among anganwadi workers, and he has mentioned their contributions in rallies too. On 3 January, Adityanath announced a Rs 2,500 salary hike for anganwadi workers as well as an “encouragement allowance” of Rs 500 for their Covid-related work, effective until March 2022.
He also thanked them for their efforts in containing the spread of Covid in India’s most populous state.
Assembly elections are due this year in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa, and Manipur, where political parties are doing their best to woo voters.
This month, the Congress government in Punjab announced a hike in the pay given to anganwadi employees, while the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), too, has promised to better their conditions if it comes to power. Last month, in Goa, following a strike by anganwadi workers, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant claimed that “90 per cent” of their demands had been fulfilled.
‘They only praise us in front of TV cameras’
In a letter dated 21 May 2021, Sarika Mohan, director of UP’s child development and nutrition department, which implements ICDS programmes in the state, directed all district magistrates to ensure that the families of the 72 deceased anganwadi workers received the promised funds of Rs 50 lakh. However, seven months down the line, little progress seems to have been made.
Sarita Singh, head of the UP Anganwadi Karamchari Va Sahayika Association, a union of anganwadi workers, told ThePrint “at least 72” workers died, but most of their families had not received compensation.
“Whenever we approached the district magistrates’ offices, we were either told that documents do not prove that the worker died due to Covid or a hollow assurance was given,” Singh, who is also a member of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of India (CFTUI), a national umbrella organisation of trade unions and associations, told ThePrint.
According to her, anganwadi workers are feeling reluctant to join Covid duty. “So many of them died saving others, their family members also contracted the virus from them and didn’t even get a hospital bed on time. After all this, how do you make sure that the workers remain motivated?” Singh said, adding that the government saw anganwadi workers only as a vote-bank.
“Many workers think it is futile to die in the line of duty, because their kids will be alone and the government won’t even take care of them. They only praise us around polls, in front of TV cameras. They do not care if we live or die,” Singh said.
‘UP government did not even pay hospital bills’
Sanjeevan Gautam, 42, lost his wife Mamta Nigam on 21 April last year. An anganwadi worker since 2004, the 42-year-old Nigam had been posted on Covid duty in Azamgarh district from the first week of April 2021.
“My wife used to tell me that anganwadi workers are like soldiers. Their duty is to save as many people as possible, even if it means risking their own life,” Gautam told ThePrint. “She was a martyr… she died saving the lives of young kids and people who had no resources.”
According to Gautam, his wife was engaged in doing door-to-door testing from 12 April, but, three days later, developed symptoms and isolated herself at home. It took three days for her RT-PCR results to come on 19 April. Within days, she breathed her last at the Government Medical College and Super Facility Hospital in Azamgarh.
“We did not get a hospital bed for more than 24 hours. If we had, maybe she could have been saved,” Gautam said, adding that his wife, who earned Rs 5,500 per month, paid for her own masks and sanitisers even while doing her duty. “The government has not even compensated the families of those who died while performing emergency services for the state,” Gautam said.
In Yogi Adityanath’s constituency Gorakhpur, the family of 48-year-old Laxmi Gupta, a mother of five, underwent a similar ordeal. According to official records accessed by ThePrint, Gupta was posted on duty from 14 April. She tested positive on 22 April and succumbed to the virus on 1 May in BRD Hospital, Gorakhpur. Gupta was one of eight anganwadi workers who died due to Covid while on duty in Gorakhpur.
Her daughter Pooja Gupta, 30, told ThePrint that the family was in dire straits financially.
“We lost our father many years ago in an accident. Our mother was the sole breadwinner of the family. She was posted on Covid duty in Khorabad, and developed a fever on 17 April. She thought it was a passing fever, but when it did not die down, she took a test and got admitted in the hospital,” Pooja Gupta said.
“Ever since she has died, we have been taking help from NGOs even for food, and sometimes sleeping on empty stomachs. My mother would have been alive if it was not for her duty, but this government has not even bothered to pay the medical bills of anganwadi workers who died on duty,” she added.
ThePrint has seen the medical documents and death certificates of both Nigam and Gupta, which confirm they died due to Covid.
A pile of paperwork needed, may not always pay off
ThePrint contacted Dr Chitra Likha Singh, joint director of the ICDS, but she said she would not be able to answer queries about the compensation since she had joined only a few months ago. ThePrint also contacted ICDS additional director Vibha Chahal, who said she was on leave due to an injury, but recommended speaking to joint project coordinator Seraj Ahmed.
Ahmed told ThePrint that receiving compensation required following a certain procedure.
“Any family eligible for the compensation amount needs to furnish a Covid positive report of the worker from the chief medical officer and a duty report from the district head of their department. Then, on the basis of the documents, the relevant district magistrate will make a recommendation to the revenue department of the UP government to give them the compensation amount,” Ahmed said, adding, “As of now, 12 anganwadi workers and one helper have received the compensation.”
When asked about the rest of the families, Ahmed said there could be various reasons for the funds not being disbursed.
“The process is taken care of at the district level and we are in an election mode right now, so this is the only data available to us. Maybe other people are in the pipeline, or maybe some of them couldn’t furnish positive Covid reports. Perhaps, they did not die due to Covid while they were on duty,” Ahmed said.
Requested to provide details about these families, Ahmed said he was not authorised to do so. Sarika Mohan and Vibha Chahal did not take calls or reply to messages when asked about the list of families.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)