When Varsha Rathore decided to take up a job at an Anganwadi (childcare) center, little did she know that she’d be joining thousands of her co-workers to protest just weeks into her job.
The 27-year-old, who works in one of India’s 1.4 million government-backed childcare centers, had scarcely managed to learn the ins and outs of the one in her village when a smartphone application suddenly changed things.
Varsha soon joined her colleagues in a sit-in to protest to the app, with some of the workers briefly detained by the police.
Dubbed the “Poshan Tracker” (Nutrition Tracker), the smartphone app is designed to assist India’s 2.6 million-strong female childcare workers, who provide government-aided childcare, nutrition, and education to nearly 400 million children.
The app launched as government ministers’ claimed it would “strengthen and bring transparency” to the country’s nutrition delivery services. But instead, it appears to have been imposed upon workers, who now struggle to enter details in an exclusionary English language version, with many suffering internet and data issues, as well as being denied quality smartphone devices to use.
Those are just a few of the many hassles childcare workers say were foisted on them.
Women working in daycare centers, known as Anganwadis, perform tasks mandated by the country’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, which aims to improve the health and nutrition of millions of lower-income Indian children.
Malnutrition has long plagued India, as 2022’s Global Hunger Index ranked the country 107 out of 121 nations.
Part of the Narendra Modi-led Indian government’s nationwide “Poshan Abhiyaan” (Nutrition Mission), the app was first rolled out in March 2021. An official website claims that this tracking app’s technology “is being leveraged for dynamic identification of stunting, wasting, under-weight prevalence among children and last mile tracking of nutrition service delivery.”
But childcare workers like Varsha refute those claims.
“We’ve had to record and tabulate details on both the app now and the physical registers. Earlier, most of the work was done on the registers. But now, every detail of each service, each beneficiary, all of it has to be entered online along with the registers. So we have to do double the work now! How is this easier for us?” an irate Varsha told the Daily Dot.
She pointed out how this app also required them to fill in all the details of the beneficiaries.
Daycare workers like her also provide nutrition packets to children between six months to three years, and their mothers, as well as maternal care packages to pregnant mothers. Varsha noted how, “to ensure the delivery of these scheme-oriented services, we take the Aadhaar (biometric identity cards) details of each child, or their parents, and create separate entries for each person, on the Poshan app. We note down the total number of such beneficiaries, who received what, and so on.”
Aside from the app making them do double the work, others say the composition of the app is itself furthering a divide. In northern India’s Haryana, Bijnesh Rana has been working as an Anganwadi worker in the town of Karnal since 1998 but feels increasingly detached as this technology is introduced.
“The app is in English, more than half the women in Anganwadi centers haven’t even gotten high-school diplomas and they speak Hindi. How are we expected to use this app?”
In 2022, the high court of the city of Bombay directed the Indian government to take “immediate steps” to ensure that this app featured regional languages after workers from three unions complained of difficulties owing to the app being in English.
Prior to March 2021, childcare workers across the country had, in fact, begun to use a software known as “Comm-Care,” which was available in several Indian local languages. But this was phased out for the Poshan app, designed in English and removed from the realities of millions of childcare workers.
That same year, Bijnesh joined thousands of her co-workers in a four-month-long protest by Anganwadi workers in her state, where the demands included increasing their honorarium wage and revoking the use of the Poshan app. Paid a pittance, Anganwadi workers are still regarded as “honorary workers” by the government, and many like Bijnesh are paid a monthly “honorarium” of nearly 12,660 Indian rupees ($153), a sum below the national minimum wage.
A weary Bijnesh asked, “They can’t increase our wages, but they have the money to launch such a pointless scheme worth so many crores (millions of rupees)?”
Rupa Rana, an Anganwadi worker and union leader from Bijnesh’s town of Karnal echoed Bijnesh’s views. She also pointed out that their state’s government, which was supposed to provide the women workers with Panasonic smartphones for using this app, has still not done so.
“In other states, the local governments have at least provided smartphones but here they are forcing women to use their own phones for this app. Not everyone has a smartphone, and even the women who do will have to spend from their own mobile internet data for this app. Who will compensate them?”
Government officials at the block development and district program office of the region refuted these claims. Raj Bala, the district program officer of Karnal, told the Daily Dot that “the smartphones would be given to the women soon.”
She also claimed that language and internet connectivity was not a barrier, adding that “supervisors in the Anganwadi centers help the workers out.”
But A.R. Sindhu, national general secretary of All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH), told the Daily Dot that to date women workers in many Indian states have not been provided smartphones to use the app.
“In states like Haryana, Punjab, West Bengal, these workers weren’t given mobile phones. Even in places where the phones were provided, most of these were old Android phones with 2G which were not compatible with the app, which required 4G connectivity.” She also stressed upon the problem of internet network access “especially in remote forest and tribal areas.”
For an app meant to keep tabs on nutrition and childcare, the women also complained that it did not have provisions for any self-correction.
“Once the data is entered, if there’s any revision that needs to be made, it has to be done entirely from scratch. It doesn’t allow Anganwadi workers to go back and make corrections. How is this going to improve efficiency, let alone give an accurate picture about beneficiaries of nutrition and healthcare schemes?” said Sindhu, the union leader.
As of January 2023, childcare workers in multiple states have held protests to revoke the app. On Jan. 6, Bijnesh and Rupa joined thousands of their co-workers to protest in Haryana. But the government has yet to relent.
Others, like Swati Narayan, an assistant Professor at the School for Public Health and Human Development in northern India’s OP Jindal University, believe that this tracking app is another step in the trend towards digitization of India’s public services. She noted that “Not only do we have the Aadhaar (biometric identities, wherein India is home to the world’s largest biometrics identity database), but the assumption is that there will be greater accountability by shifting such services online.” Emphasizing the risks of such assumptions, Narayan added that this notion “actually disempowers beneficiaries,” because this technology fails to take in mind the literacy and lack of resources of the beneficiary population.
“Each of these technologies seems to be creating more problems rather than solving them.”
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