“We have 108 students. Till now, we haven’t received the uniforms for the students. We received only ₹5,000. It was spent on fencing the perimeter of the school. We could not even construct our kitchen. The tea estate management do take enrollment but all in vain,” says the headmaster of a primary school located in a tea estate of Dibrugarh.
The kitchen is more like a 10×8 ft shanty made of bamboo sticks and hay. Branches of tree and wood are used to cook food. But this Friday, perhaps the cook is absent. Mrs Gunamoni Tanti says she was asked to leave by the headmaster as he was unable to pay her salary due to financial crunch. On the other hand, a mid-day meal worker in a tea estate in Golaghat was beaten up by the teachers of her school because the food she cooked fell short. In our society, two professions have always remained ostracized viz. safai karmacharis (waste pickers) and randhan karmis (mid-day meal workers).
In the year 1995, the Government of India issued a gazetted notification for the implementation of mid-day meal programme in Government-run schools. In Assam, the mid-day meal programme was implemented in the year 2005 when Government of Assam sent a circular to all Government schools directing them to appoint two mid-day meal workers for the same. Since 2003, the government used to give rice and dal to students which they would take home. Thus, there was no provision for cooking in the school and feeding students during lunchtime.
When the implementation of this programme was initiated, the school managing committee called for a meeting of parents. They came to a conclusion that two women from the group of parents will be appointed by the school to cook the mid-day meal for the students. Due to this, hundreds of adivasi women got employed as mid-day meal workers in the Government-run schools that are established across the tea estates in Assam. In 2005 and 2006, according to the circular, for every student, a mid-day meal worker was entitled to get 30 paise. The quality of education in Government schools was poor, therefore there were hardly any students. So, a mid-day meal worker used to earn an average of ₹3 per day. The amount increased to 40 paise in the year 2007. Asha Tanti, a mid-day meal worker from Tengakhat, says, “The circular clearly stated that mid-day meal must be prepared 20 days a month that is from Monday to Friday but in reality, the payment was not consistent. The mid-day meal workers used to receive wages only for 12 days or 15 days.”
In the year 2009, from the month of December, the Government of India decided to give ₹1,000 to mid-day meal workers as a fixed salary every month. While ₹900 would be paid by the Government of India, ₹100 would be paid by the respective state governments. Almost 10 years down the line, the mid-day meal workers still get ₹1,000 for their service. Junali Sawashi, a mid-day worker cooking mid-day meals since 2011 says, “Every month, our salaries are credited in the bank account of the school. So, we have to run to the headmaster and beg in front of him so that he can withdraw the amount from the school’s account and give it to us. When we go to him, he denies receiving the amount in the bank account and asks us to pay for his visit to the bank. There are cases when a headmaster calls a mid-day meal worker to their homes, and make her do all his household chores before paying her her hard-earned money.”
There are cases where mid-day meal workers were dismissed from their jobs at the end of the month, and fabricated charges were levelled against them like stealing raw materials for food or cooking poor quality food. Most of the time, these charges remain a mere accusation with no proof to validate them. Junali adds, “Amidst all this, it’s not wrong to say that the price of all necessary goods has risen by ten times since 2009, yet not a penny has been increased in our salary till date. We have to take care of our families with that ₹1,000.”
Furthermore, the workers don’t even get paid for two months a year when schools remain closed for holidays.
Kalpana Mura, a mid-day meal worker who recently joined a Government school at Tipling, says, “We go to the school at 9 AM, sweep the classrooms, clean the benches and boards, put water in the filter, clean and chop vegetables, cook food, clean the dining area, serve food to the children on time, wash plates and utensils, clean the kitchen and dining area. We work for 5-6 hours a day.”
Since wood is used as fuel, there is always the fear of things catching fire. If a mid-day meal worker meets with an accident during her work, there is no compensation from the school managing committee. Also, even though mid-day meal workers are mostly women, there are no maternity leaves. Expecting pension or post-retirement benefits are just beyond their wildest dreams. Thus, these working conditions make mid-day meal workers extremely vulnerable.
Last year, Assam witnessed Gunotsav which Government of Assam organized to increase the standard of government schools. Therefore, ministers and MLAs went to various government schools to do a reality check. During this period, many mid-day meal workers thought that if they can impress those ministers and MLAs with their work, then perhaps their efforts will be noticed and the Government will take measures for their welfare. Dr Himanta Biswa Sharma, Education Minister of the Government of Assam, lauded their exemplary efforts. He sat and ate with the students during one of his visits to a government school and stated that all the students who come from underprivileged families come to school not only for education but also for food. It was then decided that his government will also provide breakfast along with the mid-day meals at noon. It was then decided that his government will also provide breakfast along with the mid-day meals at noon. But what about the mid-day meal workers who worked relentlessly for hours on end? The policies about their welfare are missing from the dialogue of reforms in the state’s government schools.
Sanjay Bari, an activist who has been working for the welfare of mid-day meal workers, says, “In a government school located in a tea estate of Golaghat, two mid-day meal workers cooked food and fed the students. After the students ate, the food fell short; so they did not call the teachers and the headmaster to eat. Next day morning, two teachers yelled at the two mid-day meal workers. When the mid-day meal workers tried to defend themselves, the angry teachers took up canes and thrashed them mercilessly. We filed a case against the perpetrators, but the police called up the victims and threatened them. Eventually, we filed a complaint with the sub-divisional officer.”
According to the mid-day meal scheme of the Government, the school managing committee is given the authority to appoint mid-day meal workers. So, a mid-day meal worker does not receive any appointment from the Government. Every payment goes through the school management committee which is headed by the headmaster. Chitra Rajbongshi, a trade union leader of All Assam Mid-Day Meal Workers Union, says, “A mid-day meal worker has to do her work very cautiously because she knows very well that her work must not disappoint any members of the school managing committee. Even a small mistake can halt her payment or lead to termination of her work.”
At a time when there is a dialogue for increasing minimum wage and improving the standard of living of the most marginalized section of our society, the welfare of mid-day meal workers must be penned in our agenda of social development. It calls for a greater debate if women are spending 5-6 hours a day, earning a meagre amount of ₹1000 a month to support their families, are compensated for their efforts. There are families where a mid-day meal worker is the sole bread earner for a family of 4-5 members. The need of the hour is that the governments, civil society groups, advocates for labour laws and human rights watch groups come together to formulate a holistic policy for the welfare of the mid-day meal workers.
(Sumantra Mukherjee is a National Media Fellow, and this article is a part of his work which is supported by National Foundation for India.)