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Accepted Paper:

Between Expendability and Essentiality: Frontline Community Care Workers in India During and Beyond Pandemic  
Shiva Singh (Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Delhi)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyses the situation of India's community care workers- the Anganwadi and ASHA workers, between essential care work and expendable 'volunteership'. It explores their working lives in general and during crises, to comment on the political economy of state regulated reproductive labour.

Paper long abstract:

Indian state recruits women from local communities to act as community care 'volunteers', particularly pertaining to health outcomes for women and children. Two primary workers serving the stated welfare cause of the state are Anganwadi (community creche-cum-preschool) workers and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs). Imagined as caregivers in voluntary service of the community, they are compensated in honoraria and are not subject to the social security entitlements of a government employee. During the covid-19 pandemic, their work was listed as essential and their duties expanded to serve as 'corona warriors'. This listing was also used to quash any collective action of workers against their general exploitative working conditions turned hazardous during the pandemic.

These framings of their work put the worker in an ambivalent position between essentiality and expendability. In order to explicate this peculiar position, this paper seeks to answer two fundamental questions- 1. What are the conditions of work for Anganwadi workers and ASHAs during and beyond the pandemic that contribute to their ambivalent positioning?; and 2. How can we understand state-operated community care schemes exclusively employing women, from a political economy perspective?

Drawing on an ethnography with the workers and related stakeholders over a period of nine months, the paper embeds itself in a framework of social reproduction to analyse this form of labour, particularly as the state makes use of it to respond to a crisis.

Panel P035
Feminist perspectives on mobile essential workers: the pandemic as turning point? [Medical Anthropology Europe (MAE) & Anthropology and Mobility (AnthroMob)]
  Session 1