Women Mid-Day Meal Workers of Bihar Blow the Battle Trumpet
Entire north India is witnessing an intense heat wave, with temperatures soaring up to 45 degrees in most of the places and only those are braving the heat to come out on the streets, for whom sitting in the cool comforts of home means missing a meal. In such extreme who would sit on indefinite sit-down, if the torture of life, the threat over livelihood makes even the sun mellow down? The women mid-day meal workers of Bihar are doing precisely the same. Thousands of mid-day meal workers from various districts of Bihar have been sitting in Gardanibagh of Patna pressing their various long pending demands in front of the state government. In the four days of the sit-down the state government has refused to respond to any of the demands of the mid-day meal workers and this forced the unions to go for a militant call and call for the gherao of the residence of the CM Nitish Kumar on the fifth day.
The workers have rallied behind the banners of unions affiliated to CITU, AITUC and AIUTUC. They are one of the most exploited women workers who have been employed to cook mid-day meal to be provided to the students of government schools. These women cook are drawn from the most socially oppressed section of the society and bulk of them belong to the Maha-Dalit sections. They are given only an honorarium of Rs 1,250 per month and even this meager amount is not paid on time. In a year, they are only paid for 10 months and are discriminated against at the work place by teachers belonging to upper castes.
The Food Security Act 2013 made provision of the midday meal in the school the right of every child upto class VIII or within the age group of fourteen years in the country. But the government mechanism to implement the law, India’s prestigious flagship programme ‘National Programme for Mid Day meals in Schools’, popularly known as the Mid Day Meal Scheme, continues to remain poorly implemented in most of the states. The root of the mess lies in the constraints of financial allocation, lack of infrastructure, inadequate monitoring and managing system and poorly paid workers. The scheme was started in 1995 to end classroom hunger (though states of Kerala and Tamilnadu had started it even earlier), expanded in 2007 and later universalized in 2009. Nearly 11 crore children in 12 lakh government schools of country are benefited by the scheme. Hence, the issue of livelihood and dignity of the midday meal workers is directly related to the health of these children and also the future of the country.
What is the condition of these women workers? Nearly 26 lakh workers, mostly women belonging to the backward sections of the society, who spend around six to eight hours a day for the preparation, cooking and cleaning, are not recognised as workers. They are not paid anything near the minimum wages. After long years of service they are retrenched without any social security or pension. Even though cases of accidents and burns are common, they are not covered under any insurance or medical benefits.
The 2013 tragedy in a government school in Saran district of Bihar, in which 23 children died, pointed to the loopholes in the system. However, five years down the line governments refuse to address the fundamental issues. What do we see instead? We see governments resorting to its privatization by handing it over to big businesses like Vedanta and NGOs like ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra Foundation, Nandi Foundation etc. These NGOs are supplying food cooked in centralised kitchens located in places far off from the schools, going against the basic concept of providing freshly cooked hot meals for the children.
The huge public rally on the fifth day of the sit-down in Patna was addressed by Jai Bhagwan, General Secretary of All India Coordination Committee of Mid Day Meal Workers (CITU) and Rampari, national vice-President of All India Democratic Womens’ Association (AIDWA). The war trumpet that the workers of Bihar have blown is part and parcel of the intensifying struggles of the mid-day meal workers across the country- the struggle for dignified livelihood and also for the health of the crores of children of the country. What these brave fighters are fighting is not merely the capitalist exploitation- that refuses to even recognize them as workers- but also the feudal operation that permeates right down to the kitchens in the schools. Socialist India firmly believes that this Caravan isn’t going to stop until victory.