New Delhi, April 26, 2022: Observing that the Anganwadi centers have been established to give effect to the obligations of the State defined under Article 47 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has held that the Payment of Gratuity Act,1972 will apply to Anganwadi workers and Anganwadi helpers appointed to work in Anganwadi centres set up under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Considering the plight of such workers, Justice Ajay Rastogi said, “The important tasks of providing food security to children in the age group of 6 months to 6 years, pregnant women as well as lactating mothers have been assigned to them. In addition, there is a duty to render pre-school education. For all this, they are being paid very meagre remuneration and paltry benefits under an insurance scheme of the Central Government. It is high time that the Central Government and State Governments take serious note of the plight of AWWs and AWHs who are expected to render such important services to the society.”
The Anganwadi workers and their organizations filed these appeals which arose out of writ petitions filed by the District Development Officer and two other officers for taking exception to the orders passed by the Controlling Authority under the 1972 Act. The finding rendered by the Controlling Authority which was confirmed by the Appellate Authority was that Anganwadi Workers (AWWs) and Anganwadi Helpers (AWHs) are entitled to gratuity under the 1972 Act. The Appellate Authority confirmed the said orders.
The Single Judge dismissed the writ petitions. In Letters Patent Appeals, a Division Bench of Gujarat High Court interfered and set aside the orders passed by the Controlling Authority and the appellate authority under the 1972 Act. The Division Bench held that AWWs and AWHs could not be said to be employees as per Section 2(e) of the 1972 Act, and the ICDS project cannot be said to be an industry. It was held that as the remuneration or honorarium paid to them cannot be treated as wages within the meaning of Section 2(s) of the 1972 Act, they are disentitled to gratuity. This judgment of the Division Bench was the subject matter of challenge before this Court.
The issue involved in these appeals was whether Anganwadi workers and Anganwadi helpers appointed to work in Anganwadi centres set up under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) are entitled to gratuity under the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972.
The Top Court held that the Anganwadi centres and Mini Anganwadi centres are a part of the Anganwadi establishment of the State Government. The Anganwadi centres have been employing ten or more AWWs and AWHs in the State. Therefore, the Court had no manner of doubt that Anganwadi centres are establishments contemplated by clause (b) of Sub-section (3) of Section 1 of the 1972 Act.
The judgment of this Court in State of Karnataka and others Vs. Ameerbi and others on which the Division Bench of the High Court had placed reliance was discussed extensively. It was a case where the question raised for consideration was as to whether those who are appointed as Anganwadi workers/helpers are holders of civil posts and are entitled to seek protection of Article 311 of the Constitution. In that context, it was held by this Court that they are not holders of civil posts and protection of Article 311 of the Constitution is not available and that was the reason for which the application which was filed at the behest of Anganwadi workers/helpers under Section 15 of the Administrative Tribunal Act, 1985 was held to be not maintainable. It was also held therein that AWWs and AWHs are not the employees of Anganwadi centres or the ICDS scheme.It was held that the AWWs do not carry on any function of the State.
According to Justice Abhay S. Oka, much water had flown after the decision in the case of Ameerbi (supra) which was rendered in the year 2007. When the said decision was rendered by this Court, the National Food Security Act, 2013 was not on the statute book. Also, the Anganwadi centres established under ICDS have been given statutory status under the 2013 Act. Moreover, under Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the 2013 Act, the Anganwadi centres perform statutory duties under the 2013 Act. Thus, it was held that this decision had no bearing on the issue involved in these appeals.
On the issue of wages, the Top Court noted that the definition of wages is very wide. It means all emoluments which are earned by an employee on duty. Thus, the honorarium paid to AWWs and AWHs will also be covered by the definition of wages. As AWWs and AWHs are employed by the State Government for wages in the establishments to which the 1972 Act applies, the AWWs and AWHs are employees within the meaning of the 1972 Act.
It was also asserted by the Bench that in view of the Anganwadi Worker/Helper (Selection Criteria, Honorary Service, Review and Discipline) Rules of the Gujarat Government, the Anganwadi centres are not under the control of the Central Government. Therefore, the State Government will be an appropriate Government within the meaning of clause (a) of Section 2 of the 1972 Act. Accordingly, a person or authority appointed by the appropriate Government for the supervision and control of AWWs and AWHs will be the employer within the meaning of clause (f) of Section 2.
The Apex Court was also of the opinion that the 1972 Act will apply to Anganwadi centres and in turn to AWWs and AWHs. The Top Court also noted that the Single Judge was right in holding that the 1972 Act was applicable to AWWs and AWHs. The Controlling Authority had granted simple interest at the rate of 10% on the overdue gratuity amounts. Also, all eligible AWWs and AWHs were held to be entitled to the benefit of interest by the Top Court.
Justice Ajay Rastogi gave a concurring opinion and observed that ICDS is an extended arm of the Ministry of Women and Child Development and their nature of services being provided to a common man must be acknowledged by the legislation.
Anganwadi workers/helpers also function as a bridge between the Government and the targeted beneficiaries in delivering a bouquet of services stipulated under the NFSA. They work in proximate quarters with the beneficiaries and their services are utilized by the respective State Governments for a wide range of activities-be it survey, promotion of small savings, providing health care, group insurance, or non-formal education, he asserted.
Justice Rastogi emphasized, “…time has come when the Central Government/State Governments has to collectively consider as to whether looking to the nature of work and exponential increase in the Anganwadi centers and to ensure quality in the delivery of services and community participation and calling upon Anganwadi workers/helpers to perform multiple tasks ranging from delivery of vital services to the effective convergence of various sectoral services, the existing working conditions of Anganwadi workers/helpers coupled with lack of job security which albeit results in lack of motivation to serve in disadvantaged areas with limited sensitivity towards the delivery of services to such underprivileged groups, still being the backbone of the scheme introduced by ICDS, time has come to find out modalities in providing better service conditions of the voiceless commensurate to the nature of job discharged by them.”
Thus, the Bench allowed the appeals and set aside the impugned judgment of the Division Bench of Gujarat High Court and restored the Judgment of the Single Judge by holding that the provisions of the 1972 Act apply to AWWs and AWHs working in Anganwadi centers. The Top Court also directed that all eligible AWWs and AWHs shall be entitled to simple interest @ 10% per annum from the date specified under Sub-section 3A of Section 7 of the 1972 Act.