Delhi: Fahmeeda Akhtar was born to apple growers in Kashmir’s southern Anantnag district in April 1975 with a disability in her legs. Unable to walk without support, the 47-year-old Kashmiri woman is on the frontline of the Anganwadi women’s protest against the Human Resources (HR) policy on retirement and disengagement if the worker moved to a different location from where they were registered, introduced in Jammu and Kashmir. Choosing not to marry in the conservative Muslim-majority valley, Akhtar was always pursuing a life of social service and activism.
When Akhtar was studying in class eight in a government school in Anantnag, her mother applied for her to work at an Anganwadi centre, one of the thousands run across the country under a central government scheme for providing primary healthcare for children under the age of six and their mothers.
Her first job was supervising Anganwadi helpers, keeping an eye on the children's daily meals, and teaching them. She received 250 rupees a month.
Today, Akhtar is paid Rs 5,100 a month, but she has not received her income since May 2022 because of an administrative delay, another reason that she, like other Anganwadi workers in different parts of the country, is carrying out protests to get paid on time and to be recognised as government employees with better wages, retirement benefits and gratuity.
The all-women Anganwadi workers, who, together with the all-women ASHA workers, make up India’s rural healthcare force and played a critical role during Covid-19, say they have dedicated years of their life to this work and deserve to be treated with dignity.
As an Anganwadi worker, Akhtar has done everything from managing the food supplies for children to working as a supervisor of Anganwadi centres. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Akhtar and her team went door to door telling people about sanitation and prevention measures they could take.
Anganwadi workers and helpers in Kashmir and their counterparts in Jammu have come out against the HR policy of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which says they must retire at the age of 60 years. If, after they are engaged, the worker permanently shifts or changes her place of residence outside the ward based on the residence she was selected, she would be removed from the post.
The Anganwadi workers said the retirement age should be 65 (like in Haryana and Tripura). They said there should be no retirement until retirement benefits, including gratuity of Rs five lakh per worker and three lahks per helper, and a monthly pension of Rs 3,000. Instead of disengaging them if they move to a different location, workers said they should be adjusted in the adjoining wards of villages of their present place.
In J&K, Anganwadi workers and helpers, who are paid Rs 5,100 and Rs 2,500, respectively, amid a months-long delay in the payment of their salaries, have demanded the state’s share of Rs 600 and Rs 300 per month since 2010 be increased.
In September 2018, Prime Minister Modi said that the wages of Anganwadi workers and helpers across the country would be increased by Rs 1,500 and Rs 750, respectively. Women protesting for a higher honorarium have been arrested in Jammu and terminated from their jobs in Delhi, where workers receive Rs 11,220 and helpers Rs 5,610 and in Haryana, where the workers receive between Rs 11,401-12,661, and helpers get Rs 6781, one of the highest in the country.
Even though she can’t stand without the help of two wooden sticks, Akhtar travels 60 km from her home in Anantnag to the press enclave in Srinagar and sits at the front of the protests in Kashmir, the most recent one on 20 December 2022. She speaks with the media and the police officers deployed to curb the protests.
In this interview, Akhtar spoke about being on the frontline of a women’s protest for better pay and a retirement plan in the Muslim-majority valley, weighed down by conflict and her desire for social service and activism.
Tell us about yourself, where you grew up, and your life in Kashmir?
My name is Fahmeeda Akhtar. I was born and brought up in the village of Luckbawan Dooru in Anantnag. I am the second child of my parents. I have two brothers, one is older than me and one is younger than me. I haven’t married so I live with my brothers. Today, I am working as president of the Anganwadi workers association Anantnag.
Is it difficult to live with a disability in Kashmir? What are the challenges you have faced?
It’s a fact that living life as a disabled person is very tough but you have to do work so that people will recognise you. You have to study hard and have a passion then only people will start appreciating you in the end. It’s all about how you see things, and what’s your perception regarding the world from a very young age. Till now, I wanted to show the world what I am capable of doing. Some people with disabilities hide behind walls. They don’t come out of their homes but I never locked myself inside my home. If you will sit and listen to the gossip of people then your life will be miserable. It’s not only in Kashmir, it’s everywhere. But if you have the courage to confront the world and negotiate then life will become much better and livable.
How did you become an Anganwadi worker? Tell us about your journey.
It was my late mother who applied on my behalf in 1991. At that time, I was studying in class eight. Anganwadi workers would get 250 (rupees). Sometimes, we would get packets of lentils instead of salary. I went through an interview and I was selected. After that, I continued my studies as well as I worked hard as an Anganwadi worker. I have received so many medals of appreciation in this field. People across Kashmir now recognise me and appreciate my work.
How is the HR policy going to affect thousands of women associated with this profession? Why are you protesting against it?
It will affect us badly. When I was appointed as an Anganwadi worker they never told me that if I marry someone outside my district or tehsil then I will get disengaged. Today, they are telling us that after marriage we will be thrown out of our profession and after retirement, We won’t get a single penny. How is this justice?
They have started old age pensions but what about us where will we go in our old age days? They have appreciated us with medals and certificates for our work but now they are asking us to leave. Where will these thousands of women go? I am not saying we will not retire. I’m just saying they should launch a new policy for us so that after retirement we can live peacefully.
I have filed a petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court against this new HR policy. If we will not get justice from the High Court, we will apply to the Supreme Court as well. We are not going to sit in our homes doing nothing. We will do everything in our power to repeal this new policy. Today, 34,000 workers across Jammu and Kashmir are protesting with me against this new policy. We are now doing protests at district levels. We will protest in Anantnag and others will hold protests in their respective districts.
You have emerged as a powerful face of this agitation in Kashmir. What made you lead these protests?
I always wanted to fight for a cause. That’s the reason why I never married. I thought after my marriage, I would have to devote my life to the service of my husband and children, but I wanted to work for people. Today, I am doing that. I belong to a financially stable family so I don’t need this salary, but I am fighting for those thousands of women workers who only rely on this job. Some are widows and divorcees. Some are extremely poor and belong to lower-middle-class families. I can’t just abandon them. They consider me a leader who can sacrifice anything for their betterment.
How did people around you react to your involvement in the protest?
My brothers don’t want me to do this job but I want to fight for the rights of my colleagues. People around me have sometimes appreciated me and other times they have been critical of me. But these women workers have always shown their support and belief in me. That’s what keeps me going. Their love and respect.
We have seen you talking to high-ranked police officials at protests. What is that like?
Before and after every protest, I have to brief the police about our demands. They know why we’re protesting but despite that, they have threatened me multiple times. They used to say that they will launch an FIR against me. They used to blackmail me by saying you will get fired from this job. But I never listened to them, their threats never bothered me as I know I am working for a cause which has a greater meaning. I can sacrifice my life for it.
Are you concerned about your safety? Are people around you concerned about your safety?
Yes, sometimes I’m concerned about my life and the life of my beloved ones. After every protest, they threaten us with FIRs and many other things. That’s why my family wanted me to quit this job and do something better but I can’t do that.
We have seen these female workers becoming your shield (protecting her from the police and a stampede). How have you gained so much trust?
It's not the first time I have worked for these female Anganwadi workers and helpers. Before this policy, whenever I saw something was not going right I used to raise my voice against it. I have talked about the problems that Anganwadi workers are facing for a long time so that’s why they trust me.
What is the government’s reaction towards your agitation, so far? Do you think these protests will work?
So far we haven’t received a single sympathetic reply from any government official. They are only threatening us with useless tactics but we will continue this agitation. No matter how long or hard we have to fight we will continue it. They can’t force us to remain silent against this huge injustice. We will not allow them to play with our future.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of being an Anganwadi worker?
Being an Anganwadi worker or helper was never easy. They give us peanuts instead of pay. The last time I received my pay was in March 2022, From that month, I haven’t received a single penny from the government. You are well aware of the rising prices. Can you imagine how will a divorcee or a widow survive on such low pay that’s not even given on time? Why is no one talking about them? Aren’t they humans? Don’t they need money to survive? We have double work and low pay. But they still make us beg for it. Some women working as Anganwadi workers are unmarried. They have to run their expenses as well. How can they manage their life when you’re paying us after so many months? It’s unfortunate that no one is raising their voice for us.
How is it being unmarried for a woman in Kashmir?
It’s very difficult. People talk behind your back. If you’re travelling outside your home for some reason they will doubt you and start gossiping every time you go outside your home. It bothers you deep down but in the end, it’s your choice how long you allow them to bother you.
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Sadaf Shabir and Fahim Mattoo are journalists based in Kashmir.