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Midday Meal Cooks: Nutrition for the Village, Nothing for Them

by Vani Viswanathan

Midday meal cook from Maharashtra Babita Tade winning one crore on Kaun Banega Crorepati may have been the best news to do with the midday meal programme in the recent past. The programme is caught in controversies of various kinds, ranging from pilferage of supplies to nonpayment of the meagre honorarium to the cooks, to the proposed privatization of the scheme which, activists say, will affect the nutritional value of the food and perhaps render thousands of midday meal cooks jobless.

In recent months, Gram Vaani reached out to women who prepare midday meals in schools across Bihar, where nearly 250,000 cooks – over 9 in 10 are women – prepare meals for 12.8 million school-going children. Here are the main issues raised by these women.

The pay is measly

Gauri Devi from Sikandra has been cooking meals for a local school for 5 years and gets Rs. 1,250 a month. ‘How do I run my household with this amount?’ Even this honorarium is only available for ten months – midday meal cooks don’t get paid for the time the school is closed during summer.

Although the government has made attempts to institute a universal minimum wage again with the Wage Code Bill, midday meal cooks may not come into the picture because they are considered ‘volunteers’ rather than as employees, and therefore, don’t get wages but ‘honorariums’. As such, neither are they considered in the 7th pay commission recommendation of Rs. 18,000 as the monthly minimum wage, or the Bihar government’s recommendation that an ‘unskilled’ restaurant worker gets paid Rs. 257 per day for an 8-hour shift. As such, they aren’t paid wages, but honorariums.

Needless to say, protests by midday meal cooks asking for higher wages or being named permanent are frequent across the country, and over two lakh cooks joined a strike in Bihar in January 2019 that went on for over a month. Following a drastic drop in school attendance as the workers-on-strike did not prepare midday meals, the government added Rs. 250 to their honorarium. The cooks, however, still maintain their other demands.  

Even this meagre amount doesn’t come on time

Many of the rasoiyas Gram Vaani spoke with shared how unfortunate it was that they couldn’t afford to give their own children the kind of food they cooked in schools with their meagre pay. Some mentioned that even this amount didn’t come through regularly. Bariarpur’s Rubi Devi, who has been cooking midday meals at a middle school in Dewani Tola, Munger since 2006, says she only got paid for four months in 2018 and hasn’t received anything since.

Ironically, midday meal cooks who participated in the early 2019 protests weren’t paid for the weeks they were absent from the school.

We have also heard from our users that their pay doesn’t go straight into their accounts but the headmaster’s account (although that’s not the government mandate). Provisions for cooking, or money given to buy these, are also pocketed by teachers or others in the school, making it difficult for the midday meal cooks to do their job. This issue is rampant – issues have been found in Uttar Pradesh.

The cooks – and their role – aren’t respected

Sumitra Devi, who works at Raghunath High School in Haveli Kharagpur says midday meal cooks have to cook, make sure the kids eat, clean all their plates and the cooking vessels, and so on. ‘It’s a day-long job, but we do not get privileges that other daily wage workers get,’ she says. She is irritated that women’s work of this sort is getting ignored – as if cooking, be it at home or outside for others, is women’s ‘duty’, something they are to do without expecting payment. Nearly 90 per cent of the country’s midday meal cooks are women. 

Similar attitudes extend to how their time is utilized by the school. Gauri Devi from Sikandra says she is asked by the Principal to do work outside of cooking, such as cleaning the toilets and sweeping the floors. A few users mentioned they are asked to do chores at the school headmaster’s/headmistress’s home. Many cooks are also constantly harassed with the fear of being pushed out of their jobs. Seema Kumari from Munger describes how school authorities keep pushing them around: ‘they keep saying that if we don’t do our work properly, they’ll fire us and bring in someone else.’

This is exacerbated when caste comes into the picture. The midday meal scheme gives ‘priority’ to ‘recruitment of cook-cum-helpers from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, wherein more than 36% cook-cum-helpers are from the SC and the ST communities’. In reality, reports show that these rules are routinely flouted; cooks from these communities are either not hired, or are made to do tasks outside of their mandate simply because of their caste/tribal background. Parents and teachers or head staff protest against the employment of such cooks in schools, and cases of such overt discrimination have been reported even as late as 2018. Workers have little recourse to complain without fear of losing their job or the meagre salary. Those who protest against such moves or complain to the police don’t get any solace – they are often fired or transferred.

Even if school authorities may acknowledge these issues, their attitude isn’t helping. Kishore Prasad, principal of a middle school in Bihar that we spoke with explains that the midday meal cooks constantly ‘cry’ about not receiving sufficient wages, even as he recognises that it’s impossible for these to feed, clothe or educate their children with 1,500 rupees. ‘But I don’t know about the labour laws that concern these women… and it’s between them and the Bihar government,’ he says, unwilling to express any opinion on whether the women should be considered regular workers rather than volunteers.

What now?

Even as fundamental issues on pay, discrimination and safety for midday meal cooks haven’t been addressed, the government has opened up the service to NGOs to privatize it in a bid to ‘leverage efficiency gains’, especially in urban or rural areas that have good road connectivity. Understandably, this move has triggered much protest, both against the loss of jobs this could mean for midday meal cooks who’re already associated with schools, and for the possible dilution in the types of meals that children will get, especially where the contracted NGO has religious affiliations. Protests have been seen across Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, among others. 

The cooks and union leaders from Bihar also talk about continuing to protest, as not only were the increase in wages measly, other demands about regularization and minimum wage were unheeded.

Satish Prasad Satish, who is the vice-chairperson with the Bihar Rajya Arajpatrit Karamchari Mahasangh, says ‘The non-payment of wages for the weeks that the midday meal cooks were protesting is unfair. This happened despite union leaders’ negotiations with the government employees.’ Satish Prasad says that besides protesting for better wages, they will also protest against handing over the cooking of midday meals to NGOs or initiating direct transfer of funds to children’s bank accounts, both of which will lead to hundreds of thousands of women losing their jobs as midday meal cooks.

Midday meal cook Sangeeta Devi wants a minimum of five thousand rupees as a monthly salary. ‘We carry big and heavy vessels, move around gas stoves and other things that the school principal asks us to do. We will continue to protest. Many women are part of the union and will join us.

Jaimala Devi and Vinay Kumar, both cooks at a school in Munger, also say they can only continue to push back against low wages. ‘Yes, we do keep protesting – we even took the matter to the Chief Minister in Patna. They say we can work till we turn 60, but our demands for the minimum wage of Rs. 18,000 that the government promises others falls on deaf ears.’

‘Our situation is worse than that of bonded labourers’, says Vinay Kumar.