There have been countless statements by government authorities regarding the urgent need to empower women. However they have hardly paid any attention to the continuing exploitation within the government system of over 2 million mid-day cooks almost all of whom are women. What is more, most of these mid-meal cooks come from some of the poorest households. Many of them are single women; several are widows who have no other alternative but to continue working even in the most glaringly exploitative conditions.
To give an idea of the extent of their problems, we may mention here a report in the Tribune in 2019 which stated that about 44,000 mid-day meal cooks in Punjab had demanded a rise in their wages from INR 1700 to INR 3000 per month (even the increased amount would have been much below the minimum legal wage, but instead they got an order asking them to also clean the utensils in which children eat their meals. In December 2022 another report from Uttar Pradesh stated that nearly 377,000 mid-day meal cooks in the state had not received their wage for the last 6 months after this was raised from INR 1500 to INR 2000.
The Mid-Day Meal Scheme has been regarded as a very important nutrition scheme of India. Despite the lip-sympathy paid to this scheme by the government, it is amazing that its allocations have been declining in real terms, after accounting for inflationary impact, while over 2 million women employed in cooking these meals suffer from alarming exploitation.
Some time back I spoke to dozens of teachers, mid-day meal cooks and members of school management committees in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They all agreed with one voice that mid-day meal cooks are denied fair wages, and even the highly inadequate wages are generally not paid in time.
At present the wage of a mid-day meal cook in vast areas of the country is way below the legal minimium wage for the area. There should be a campaign to raise this wage. They clean the kitchen, sometimes they are also asked to sweep other rooms as well, then an average MDM worker cooks for 50 to 100 children, cleans utensils and again cleans kitchen before leaving. It is more or less a full-time job of great responsibility, and a wage which can be as low as about INR 70 to INR 100 per day is clearly unjust .
Keeping in view the fact that mid-day meal cooks have almost a full working day job which requires continuous work of great responsibility, they should get the legal minimum wage. There should be adequate provision in the budget for this. As an immediate step, at least the existing wage should be doubled.
What is more, wages are often delayed and when accumulated wages come after a long time, some part is invariably missing.
Some time back I met Maina Devi in a distant village. She was employed with two other women for cooking mid-day meal in a primary school. She said she comes to school when the school starts at 9 and generally leaves at 3 when the school closes. Apart from cooking and serving meals for children the big cooking vessels have to be washed and kitchen cleaned before she goes home. In the morning while cleaning kitchen sometimes she has to lend a hand in other cleaning work also.
Another issue is that in most states mid-day meal cooks are denied wages for summer vacations, hence getting paid for only 10 months instead of 12 months, despite some court orders saying that they should be paid for 12 months. Recently this aspect was highlighted by a union of mid-day meal workers in Himachal Pradesh which also alleged that taking the pretext of diminishing number of students in some government schools several mid-day meal cooks are being retrenched.
In many places safe and clean cooking conditions have not been provided yet and as a result the cooks suffer and chances of food contamination exist. Nearly 979 food poisoning cases were reported in mid-day meals in 2022 from around the country while 9646 such cases were reported during the last 13 years.
Of course the safety aspects of large-scale cooking every day are also very important and should get a lot of attention. But at the same time it should be realized that improving the condition of mid-day meal cooks is an integral part of improving mid-day meals.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, When the Two Streams Met and Navjeevan.