Vol. XL No. 50 December 11, 2016

Mid-Day Meal Workers Padav at Jantar Mantar

Varalaxmi S & K S Vimala

IN early November, Jantar Mantar, a place which silently witnessed several historic struggles, was swarmed with women from the most oppressed sections. These women, who feed millions of school children through the government’s Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme, live in utter poverty. Their appearance gave away their social and economic distress. Majority of them are single women, deserted, divorcees and widows. Thousands of women MDM workers from Karnataka, Kerala, Bihar, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Telangana, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Tripura and Madhya Pradesh took part in the ‘Padav’ (sit-in).

The scheme directs them to provide hot milk to the children in schools by 9 am and at 1.30 pm, they have to provide lunch. To facilitate this, they have to get up as early as 5 AM since they have to complete chores of their own families as well. In several schools, there are no Group D or Class 4 employees, so they have to do their work also. In most of the schools, there is no drinking water facility, compelling them to walk several kilometres to fetch water. On School Day or any celebration in the school means they have to cook for the occasion also. And they are getting only Rs 600 a month as honorarium! The Constitution guarantees a life of dignity to all of us. But with just Rs 600, can anybody lead a decent life? The prime minister makes big promises, but he never thought about these hapless women and their lives at all.

The Indian Labour Conference held in 2012 recommended considering these women as workers. And the Supreme Court has upheld equal wage for equal work. When MNREGA provides for Rs 272 as wage to those who work under the scheme, why are these women who work for more than six hours a day not entitled for a better wage? Mid-Day Meal workers are being organised in many states under the Mid-Day Meal Workers Federation of India (MDMWFI) with guidance of CITU, to address the workers’ problems.

Since 2010, the government has not increased their wage or not given any other facilities. To protest this, a massive Padav was organised on November 10-11 and a ‘Parliament Chalo’ was organised by CITU. The event was addressed by CITU president A K Padmanaban and CPI(M) MPs K Karunakaran and P Sampath. Jai Bhagawan, S Varalakshmi, Ranjana Nirula, A R Sindhu and Usha Rani also addressed the gathering. A delegation met the Principle Secretary of the HRD Ministry and handed over a memorandum.

Problems of Mid-Day

Meal Workers

The government prescribes that one cook shall be engaged for 25 children and two for up to 60 students. Sometimes there may be three cooks, for 60 to 100 children. But mostly in rural areas, only one cook will be there and she has to manage everything. For 25 children, it requires 5-6 hours to prepare food and clean the vessels etc. When there is no water supply it takes extra time since they have to walk the distance many times. But as per the government’s understanding it is the work of four-and-a-half hours! The quality of the material supplied may be sub-standard and naturally the taste will not be good. But instead of correcting it, finding fault of the cook is the practice. There are no safety measures, many a times they sustain burns while cooking but no medical facilities are available on the spot. More than 150 women in Karnataka suffered burn injuries and other type of accidents. There are also instances of children of the cook falling into hot vessels and sustaining severe injuries.

Even in case of emergencies, they won’t get time off or leave. They are expected to be obedient with every one whom they are answerable to. Raised voice or any question will cost their employment itself. Local leaders and panchayat members are the government for them. The government has assured free medical check-up of MDM workers and we welcome it. But in the name of medical check-up, they have diagnosed one worker with HIV+ve and made it public in a place called Okkunda of Bailhongal taluk of Belgaum district. Though it is against law, she was forced to stay away from her job. Law prohibits making AIDS and HIV+ve public. And it is not at all a contagious disease. But because of lack of knowledge among officials and villagers, women have to face the consequences. Caste discrimination is rampant. If she belongs to dalit community, Caste Hindus won’t allow her to cook or otherwise they will direct their children not to eat the food prepared by her.  Yet again this is in blatant violation of our Constitution.  But this continues to happen.

History & Impact

of MDM Scheme

Mid-Day Meal scheme has a long history. In 1920-25, during the British period, Bombay Municipal Corporation had started mid-day meal to encourage children’s education.  In 1957, the EMS-led government in Kerala began giving ‘upma’ and ‘laddu’ for lunch at schools. Post 1980, Kerala, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry governments also started it. In 1990s, several other states introduced this scheme.

This scheme has helped increase attendance and ensures equality in schools in several states. To some extent, gender discrimination aspect was also addressed, since all are getting equal distribution and eating together etc.

In August 1995, the central government extended the scheme to 2,408 blocks under NS-NSPE (National Programme for National Support to Primary Education) with a direction to the state governments to bear the cost. In 2001, with the intervention of the Supreme Court, the central government started funding the same. From 2002-03, the scheme was extended to all states. There are 26 lakh cooks who are cooking for more than 12 crore children.

The government is spending Rs 13,215 crore -- apart from free ration, Rs 5.38 per student from 1-8 standard and Rs 5.64 for higher secondary schools. Several NCERT surveys and studies reveal that this scheme has helped children from the poorer section in a big way. Since they are getting timely food, their interest in studies and other activities have improved a lot. Dropout rates have also reduced. A significant achievement is the reduction in dropout rates of girls.

But unfortunately instead of strengthening the scheme, the central government has reduced the budgetary allocation by 33 percent in 2015, and violating the norms it is handing it over to religious institutions.  The work is being given to ISKON, Adamya Chetana foundation and Nandi foundation, some mutts and to SHGs etc. Now there is an attempt to start centralised kitchens also. By this, crores of rupees of investment done by the government will go waste. These institutions are also funded by the government only. And also they mobilise money from other sources in the name of these children. The food is prepared previous night and will be supplied by 10 AM through boxes since it is prepared in centralised kitchens. Most of the time children have to eat spoiled food and it shows the government’s callousness about the children from poor and marginalised sections and their love towards private operators. Most of the time, these institutions collect money from other donors in the name of children. Privatisation is endangering Mid-Day Meal scheme, like many other welfare schemes.