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Midday meal cooks – a neglected segment of women workers

Bharat Dogra spoke to teachers, school management representatives, and mid-day meal cooks at schools, to paint this picture of exploitation and injustice

There have been countless statements by government authorities regarding the urgent need to empower women. However, they have paid hardly any attention to the continuing exploitation within the government system of over two million midday meal cooks, almost all of whom are women. What is more, most of them come from the poorest households. Many are single women; several are widows who have no other alternative but to continue working even in the most glaringly exploitative conditions.

A report in The Tribune in 2019 had said that about 44,000 midday meal cooks in Punjab had demanded a rise in their wages from Rs 1700 to Rs 3000 per month (even the increased amount would have been much below the minimum legal wage) but instead they got an order asking them to also clean the utensils used by the children. In December 2022, another report from Uttar Pradesh said nearly 377,000 midday meal cooks in the state had not received their wages for the preceding six months, after the amount was raised from Rs 1500 to Rs 2000.

The Midday Meal Scheme is regarded as a very important nutrition scheme in India. As such, it is amazing that allocations for it have been declining in real terms, after accounting for inflationary impact, and over two million women employed as cooks under the scheme are victims of exploitation.

I spoke to dozens of teachers, mid-day meal cooks and members of school management committees in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They were unanimous in their view that midday meal cooks are denied fair wages, and that even the highly inadequate wages are generally not paid in time.

Currently, the wages of midday meal cooks in many parts of India are way below the legal minimum wage for those regions. Apart from preparing meals for 50 to 100 children, the cooks are expected to do other work as well. Take the case of Maina Devi, who I met in a remote village. She and two other women were engaged to cook the midday meal at a primary school. She arrives when the school starts at 9 am., and generally leaves at 3 pm., when the school day ends. Apart from cooking and serving meals, the big cooking vessels have to be washed and kitchen cleaned before she goes home. The next morning, she has to start by cleaning the kitchen, and is sometimes asked to lend a hand in other cleaning work also. It is more or less a full-time job of great responsibility, and as such they should be given the legal minimum wage.             

Another problem is that in most states, mid-day meal cooks are denied wages during summer vacations, and are paid for only 10 months instead of 12 months, despite some court orders to the contrary. Recently, this aspect was highlighted by a union of midday meal workers in Himachal Pradesh, which also alleged that citing diminishing student populations in some government schools, several mid-day meal cooks were being retrenched.

In many places, safe and clean cooking conditions have not been provided. As many as 979 food poisoning cases associated with midday meals were reported in 2022 from around the country. A total of 9646 such cases were reported during the last 13 years. And the cooks get the blame. Not only should the safety standards of large-scale cooking on a daily basis be given due attention, it should be understood that improving the welfare of the mid-day meal cooks will go a long way towards bettering the quality of their work.

(The writer’s recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.)