Rural women in Rajasthan find regular livelihood resource as mid-day meal cooks  

Prem Bai, mother of three children, is a neo-literate in Baansthuli village of Baran district in Rajasthan. Having been working in a government primary school here for six years where her children were enrolled until a few years ago, she can now read Hindi newspapers and prefers political news to others.

“I studied until Class II when I was young. That’s all, but I always wanted to study more.”

 Life gave her another opportunity six years ago when she got employed as a cook for Mid Day Meals programme being implemented by Akshaya Patra — a non-governmental organisation — for Rajasthan government. “When I am done with cooking and distribution of meals, I sit in the class and learn what the teacher teaches. Back home I read my children’s books. Today I can read a newspaper without any difficult,” she told The Hindu.

Widowed several years ago, she had no regular means of income and worked as a casual labourer under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme until she was chosen to cook for this primary school along with three other women. She now earns Rs. 1,000-1,200 per month for cooking food for 100-odd students. Additionally, her lunch also comes from mid day meals and any left-over is taken home by the cooks which takes care of dinner as well. 

In the class, Prem Bai has for company siblings of students who are sent to school by their parents who work as casual labourers. Though not enrolled, these children come with their elder siblings since the parents feel their children will be safer in school and will get at least one nutritious meal. Importantly, it will inculcate a love for schools and studies, the teachers feel. However, the government does not pay for them.

When the school closes for vacations, Prem Bai takes up MGNREGA work which is an additional source of income. “MGNREGA is temporary work but cooking is a regular income,” she said.

Akshaya Patra Foundation supplies mid-day meals to 14,000 school children in over 100 primary schools in the district by employing the poorest women of the villages as cooks. Prem Bai is one of them.

 In the adjacent Rampuriya village, Kanti Bai also earns her livelihood by cooking mid-day meals. Kanti Bai and Lalita Bai cook together and send food to a nearly school, earning Rs. 1,400 each per month. In addition, they collect firewood for which they are paid.  

Akshaya Patra has modern centralised kitchens across the country for serving mid-day meals to 1.3 million school children. However, in the rural and remote areas, they have developed the concept of de-centralised kitchens since it is difficult to transport meal there. Baran district is dominated by Sehariya, Bairwa and Dhakad tribes.  

“We have de-centralised kitchens in the tribal regions of Odisha, Rajasthan and in Mathura district where we employ women to cook the locally available food,” says R. Govind Das, unit president, The Akshaya Patra Foundation, Rajasthan.

The outfit runs 102 kitchens in Baran where 198 women are employed. Named Matajis, the women are taught basic lessons in sanitation and basic hygiene. “We now insist that children also wash hands before eating,” Kanti Bai said.   

In Ghatti village, Bishakha Das quit her MGNREGA work after she was employed as a cook. “That work is too tiring and laborious. After school, I roll bidis for additional income,” she said.  

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