For a scheme that the Central government has declared an essential arm of its educational and nutritional objectives in the last three days, both the Central and the State governments have shown a remarkable lack of concern for the 27 lakh workers, most of them women, who administer it.

The tragedy that killed 23 children in Bihar’s Chapra village last Tuesday has shone a rare spotlight on India’s mid-day meal scheme that feeds over 12 crore children every day. In over 12 lakh government-run and aided schools, children receive free, cooked lunch every day. Schools are allowed to hire one “cook-cum-helper” for every 25 children, two for every 100 children and 1 for every 100 children over this. The scheme’s sstate that widows and women from backward castes are to be given priority in hiring.

While the scheme envisages mid-day meal cooks as part-time workers who need to do just two hours of work in a day, workers and unions claim that the work spills far beyond its defined norms.

“While the grain comes to the school, the cook has to source vegetables and other condiments herself. She also has to collect firewood and clean the dishes. All this runs into several hours of work,” said A.R. Sindhu, convenor of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions’ coordination committee of mid-day meal workers. Many cooks are also forced to clean the school and at times, even the teachers’ houses, Ms. Sindhu added. “By the time I walk to the school, finish all the work and reach home, I’ve spent at least six hours in the middle of the work day. It is impossible to do much farm work before or after,” Rani Bari, a cook from Tinsukhia in Assam told The Hindu over phone.

Mid-day meal cooks are not considered government employees, and are paid only an “honorarium”. At the end of 2009, the Union government hiked this sum to Rs. 1,000 per “cook-cum-helper”, of which it pays Rs. 900 and the State government must pay at least Rs. 100, and are free to further top up this amount. They are employed for only those 10 months of the year that the school functions, and in many States contracts are renewed every year.

“Our biggest demand is that we should be regularised. We are doing the government’s work, and it is hard work, so we should be considered government employees,” Chanchal Chandramohan, a cook in Seelampur in north-west Delhi said.

While States including Kerala, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Manipur have topped up the honorarium, Tamil Nadu is the only State that recognises noon meal cooks as permanent State government employees and gives them full benefits. The State’s “Nutritious Meal Organiser” gets paid Rs. 5,000 in addition to benefits like provident fund and pension.

“The combination of low allowances for cooking costs that have not kept pace with food inflation, creaky infrastructure and a lack of securely employed workers shows that the mid-day meal is extremely low priority,” said Harsh Mander, special commissioner to the Supreme Court on the Right To Food.

The insecure work status of mid-day meal workers is not unique. Daily, over 1 crore workers, fan out across the country taking the government’s ambitious schemes — the mid-day meal scheme, the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission — to the people. Yet their terms of employment remain insecure, honorarium lower than the minimum wage and payments usually delayed.

Rajendra Prasad Rawat is a cook in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district, and his wife an ASHA worker. “We were agricultural labourers earlier because we owned no land. We wanted these jobs because they are more dignified, but between my wife and me, it is impossible to raise three kids in Rs. 2000,” Mr. Rawat said over phone.

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