The cooks in noon meal centres work in inhospitable conditions, swathed in sweat and firewood smoke, live in shacks and remain at the lowest rung of society. Many of those who have been working for nearly three decades were given a job as they were abandoned by their husbands or widowed.

They are paid wages as part-time employees but their working hours are much longer. They are not eligible for other benefits.

“I began with a salary of Re.1 a day. Now I have been promoted as cook and earn Rs.9 a day,” says Mahalakshmi* of Royapuram. “Despite 28 years of government service, I cannot take leave and do not have medical benefits. They deduct Rs.25 towards the health insurance scheme but that scheme will help only if I require surgery. For minor ailments I pay out of my pocket. The salary is not enough even to cover the house rent, buy provisions and take care of my three children,” she said, even while admitting to taking the leftover food home.

Padma* sought to work as helper at a noon meal centre after her husband abandoned her. “My daughter was born a few months after I joined work. She is 26 years old now but I don't have the money to marry her off. A missionary sponsored her education and we converted to another religion,” she says. Madhuram* did not have money to celebrate ‘Pongal' as the bonus announced by the government is yet to reach her. The 53-year-old, who has two sons, says, “Only if I can supplement the income of the family can I live with dignity.” “Every day I have to set aside Rs.3 for the bus fare. If I am late, I am marked absent. Sometimes, I have to borrow money from neighbours,” adds Madhuram, who was abandoned by her husband.

Her neighbour Esther*, who is also working in a government-aided school as a cook, underwent a surgery for a spinal cord injury sometime ago. “In the school, I worked there was no water supply. I had to bring several pots of water everyday. It resulted in back ache problem.” She too started as a helper and was recently promoted as a cook.

Life after retirement is worse. “I worked as a cook until 2007. Three months before retirement I had a fall in school. Since then I walk on crutches and had to be carried to Chennai Corporation's office to receive pension,” says Saroja of Royapuram. She ended up paying Rs.150 each way for an auto and returned home with Rs.200 as pension.

(*Names changed)

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R. SujathaJune 28, 2012

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