Challenging dominance: identity politics in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Programme, India

By Shilpa Deshpande, PhD Candidate, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex

Ten years before I joined the ICDS as an anganwadi worker, my cousin mother-in-law used to work here. At that time, the division of the village population between anganwadi workers was such that lower caste households were served by my mother-in-law whereas only the higher caste households were served by Lata madam, this was her rule….so… my mother-in-law’s field area was scattered across the village. Then when I joined, Lata madam said that just like my mother-in-law I should be given the lower caste communities. I refused…. I said give me any part of the village but I want half and I want it along a continuous line then only will I be able to work. This led to a fight, which continued for several days.

Meena, Anganwadi worker

Meena* is a young, field worker of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme in Mangaon* village of Sundar* block, Aurangabad district, Maharashtra. She has been recruited by the Sundar block* administration to cater to the health, nutrition and education needs of pregnant and nursing mothers, 0-6 year old children and adolescent girls in a population of about 650 persons through a small village based centre, the anganwadi. She is one of 3 anganwadi workers in the village and joined the programme in 2010. The other two anganwadi workers were recruited in the late 80s when the ICDS programme began in the block. Meena belongs to the Scheduled Castes†, whereas Lata*, is from the dominant Maratha caste. I met Meena in 2015 as part of ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted for my PhD on understanding the governance of the ICDS programme. In the interview extract quoted, she shares that because she belongs to the Scheduled Castes, the existing anganwadi worker from the dominant caste refused to allocate higher caste households to her and insisted that she focus only on the Scheduled Caste households.

Meena’s experience is rooted in the larger Maratha-Dalit politics of the Marathwada region of the state, of which Aurangabad district is a part. Marathas have traditionally been the dominant caste in the state and more so in this region. They constitute almost 40 percent of the population, are some of the largest landholders, often holding a majority of the land and are also politically dominant. Marathas have historically occupied a majority of seats in the Zilla Parishad (district government), state legislature as well as the cabinet! Besides this, Marathas also have a historically nurtured self-image as rulers and leaders. For Waghmore (2013) the last is the most significant and the key in understanding their aggression towards the Scheduled Castes or Dalits. In Mangaon village, where Meena lives and works, and which has always had a Maratha Sarpanch (head of the village self-governance committee) there have been at least two reported incidents of Marathas attacking Dalit neighbourhoods, killing and destroying property.

Social mapMaratha dominance in the ICDS programme is reflected in that a majority of anganwadi workers in Meena’s beat‡ are Maratha even though the anganwadi worker recruitment process is designed to favour candidates from the historically marginalised groups. Political patronage, caste and kinship networks work to benefit the Marathas. Maratha anganwadi workers, whom I studied, routinely discriminated against women and children from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, not visiting their areas and refusing to serve them. Because of their political connections, they were also able to violate rules with impunity, often remaining absent with little or no action taken.

There is existing research on how dominant castes such as the Marathas colonise the local state to corner resources and opportunities. But Meena’s experience is significant because it emphasises that the local state, in this case the ICDS, provides a stage for the performance of caste identities – for asserting, challenging and renegotiating identities. Meena, a slight young woman, with bright eyes and an infectious smile, took on Maratha dominance in the ICDS refusing to play by the informal rules and demanding an equal footing as a programme worker. She successfully solicited community and bureaucratic support to change the decades old practice of allocating households to ICDS workers by caste.

…. I started asking the people of the village if they had a problem. I said when you admit your child in the first standard and the Zilla Parishad (District Government) teacher comes do you ask them which (social) category they are from? Should we do this, should children be placed according to the (social) category of the teacher? They said no, there is no such problem, let the children learn, on the contrary your education is better than hers so let the children be with you….I got my survey area nearly 4-5 months (after joining)… I asked Madam (the Supervisor) to come and show me my area…..then I was able to start work. (Meena)

However, Meena’s challenge to caste roles did not go unanswered. Over the next several months Lata tried in different ways to appropriate her labour and resources reproducing the material and cultural basis of her social power. One day after a particularly nasty and bitter argument, Lata attacked her saying:

…. you demand half of my survey, you tell me what to do….. its gone to your head, you should never have been recruited, stop this, working by the rules… Chambhar, what did you think just because you move with the Marathas…. (Meena)

Meena filed a case against Lata under The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 – social power was countered formally by recourse to state provided legal instruments. However, Meena had to subsequently withdraw the case as Lata threatened to file a case of sexual harassment against her husband.

Meena’s experience underscores the social embeddedness of state functionaries highlighting the ways in which the state becomes an extended arena for struggles of dominance and power. These struggles in turn shape the implementation of state programmes such as the ICDS and their governance.


Waghmore, S., 2013. Civility against Caste: Dalit Politics and Citizenship in Western India. SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi.


[*] The names of persons, villages and the block have been anonymised to maintain confidentiality.

[†] Caste is a religiously sanctioned form of social stratification such that the higher castes are considered socially pure and the lower castes polluting. The Scheduled Castes are historically marginalised groups identified by the Indian Constitution for state support including affirmative action.

[‡] A beat is a set of 20-25 anganwadis under a single Supervisor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>