Mid-day Meal Workers in Assam are up in arms against the privatisation of the mid-day meals scheme for schools in the State and demanding better pay
As we went up the narrow steps to the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Union) office in Chandmari in Guwahati, we were ushered into a room with no natural light, and could vaguely make out a group of middle-aged women sitting on red plastic chairs, their brightly coloured mekhela-sadors and sarees adding warmth to an otherwise dull room. The women were randhonis (cooks) engaged under the Government’s Mid Day Meal Programme since 2005 and had gathered in Guwahati to protest against privatization and demand for better wages. This was not the first time they had gathered here from all over the State: Kamrup (Rural), Morigaon, Baksa and Udalguri districts.
Chitra Rajbongshi who works at the Milan Prathamik Vidyalaya in Kamrup (Rural) District explains: ‘In 2005-2006, it was decided that we will get 30 paisa against every student we feed, but we did not receive the money. In 2007, the money was increased to 40 paisa but we still had not received any money. After we agitated and demanded our rights, it was increased to Rs 1000 in December 2009. From then on, we had received 1000 rupees as ‘manoni’ (remuneration) for 10 months, as for two months, the schools are closed. Can you tell me how I should run my home on Rs 1000? There has been no raise for almost 10 years. We want our wages to increase to 5000 rupees.’ In Kerala, cooks are paid Rs 9, 500 per month, while in Tamil Nadu, they are paid Rs 6,500 a month’. But in many other Indian states such as in Assam, they continue to be paid a pittance.
Non-Introduction of LPG Cylinders
Out of the total enrolment of 13.16 crore children, 10.03 crore children had the midday meal in 11.50 lakh schools during 2015-16. Assam and Bengal recorded the highest coverage, with 96 per cent of the enrolled children having the meals. 41% of the schools under SSA in India use LPG cylinders, but in Assam, only around 1% of the schools have LPG connections. As a result, cooks have to depend on firewood, a non-environment friendly option that is also detrimental to their overall health.
‘I reach my school by 9 am after which I sweep the school premises. I also make sure the bathrooms are clean and there is water in the buckets. I filter drinking water, while the other cooks clean the rice and dal. Then it is time to cut the vegetables and prepare the meal according to a fixed schedule we have received, though we keep the children’s’ preferences in mind. Only a few schools in Assam have LPG cylinders, the rest of the schools depend on khori (firewood). Because we spend so much time stoking the generous fire we light up, most of us have problems with clouded vision. After we serve the children their meals, it is time to wash the utensils and keep them ready for the next day,’ shares Reena Devi of Thanahorua Prathamik Vidyalaya.
Changing Guidelines and Repercussions
After 2009 as per the new Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan guidelines, for every 25 students, there was provision for 1 cook, for every 50-100 students, 2 cooks could be engaged, and for 101-200, 3 cooks could be kept. But in 2005, according to the latest guideline, 2 cooks had already been engaged in every school. These same schools had to let go of cooks where the student-cook ratio was less. Surama Deka Das of Baksa District recollects, ‘We had also protested back then against cuts in jobs. Parents nowadays want their children to enroll in English-medium private schools, so in many schools, the required cook-student ratio was not as desired. But it is also difficult to see how 1 cook can look after 25 students. There are very young children who go to school, they can’t wash their plates, or wash their hands, and they are our responsibility. And, on the days we menstruate, we are not supposed to report at school. On such days, the burden falls on the others. To take care of this, in most schools, you will also find temporary cooks who are paid even less.’
Major Anomalies Are the Norm
Prior to 2009, when the cooks engaged under the flagship scheme were paid in cash, they had to regularly part with a portion of their wages to pay for ‘petrol’ or ‘tamul’ (betel-nut) of the headmasters through whose hands the wages were passed down. Some teachers/headmasters also amassed huge sums of money meant to buy rice or dal for the children. There were also news reports about the inferior quality of food grains used. The leakage even after direct account transfer to beneficiaries has been stemmed somewhat though leakages continue. In 2015, the Bureau of Investigation of Economic Offences (BIEO) seized more than 400 quintals of rice from the godown of a cooperative society in Krishnai in Goalpara District.
Assam is also yet to roll out the SMS-based automated monitoring system, which aims to bring transparency in implementation of the programme. The system was introduced to help monitor daily consumption of midday meals and the attendance of cook-cum-helpers. The Centre decided to introduce the monitoring system following reports of huge discrepancies in the actual number of students in schools and the number of students against whom funds were sanctioned for the midday meal scheme.
Akshaypatra and Privatisation
When Monjura Begum steps inside the Borsukabaha Prathyamik Vidyalaya in Morigaon District, there are often whispered requests from the younger children about what they want to eat that day, sometimes it is Kosu (colocassia) or the abundant dhekiya xaak (Fiddlehead Fern). ‘They lovingly call me baideo though I am not their teacher and it is this respect and love that makes my break backing work easy. Will any foundation be able to provide fresh and hot food like I do? Do they know their names or care for their likes/dislikes? The Govt says we will not lose our jobs but we will be kept only for food distribution. There will be a cut on our already meager pay, 500 rupees will go to the foundation and 500 rupees will be paid to us. But my main concern is for the children, what will be the food value in a meal cooked at dawn? And, will my children eat the food they provide? Here, we use fresh vegetables sourced from the Matri Gut (mother’s club) grown by the mothers in their kitchen gardens’.
The mid-day meal workers are protesting against the decision to hand over charge of serving mid-day meals to an NGO, Akhsaypatra Foundation. Since 2010, the foundation was selected as a partner to serve cooked meals in all government schools on a public-private partnership model in Kamrup (rural and urban) after the then Governor Banwarilal Purohit visited the foundation’s premises and were impressed by their machinery and expertise. But many point out that centralized kitchens are more or less preferred in large urban areas. In a predominantly diverse rural landscape like Assam, there should be more emphasis on appreciating the diversities in our food culture rather than clubbing them under one monolithic umbrella. Instead, collective kitchens run by local people and monitored by the Mothers Clubs could be a viable alternative. There are also concerns raised about the quality of food that is prepared before dawn and kept in containers till lunch is served, in a humid State like Assam. Also, the mid-day meal was initiated to mitigate social inequalities in the system; many of the mid-day meal workers are from poor backgrounds and have little formal education. 99% of them are women. Isn’t it time we understood that without empowering and strengthening their lives, the very objectives of the programme would be defeated.
Nasreen Habib is the Editor of Eclectic NorthEast, a monthly magazine based out of Guwahati. She can be reached at [email protected]