Starvation wages for mid-day meal workers

B. Sivaraman

They provide food for thousands of children every day in the schools. For this they receive a wage ofRs.1250 per month; or, Rs.42 per day. Unbelievable! In this day and age! But this is the reality of Nitish Kumar’s Bihar.
Pointing to 42% of the country’s children affected by malnutrition, the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called malnutrition in India a national shame in 2012. He did touch a raw nerve in the nation’s conscience. But not many were aware that the same year the share of children in Bihar suffering due to malnutrition was 80%. That was a world record as it was higher than the undr-5 child malnutrition prevalent in any country of the world.
Long before Manmohan’s comment, this vexed issue had probably stirred the judiciary’s conscience as well. After admitting a right to food PIL filed by the PUCL in April 2001, in a landmark order on 28 November 2001, the Supreme Court directed the Centre and all State governments to provide cooked mid-day meal to all children in the government and government-aided schools. Though it had the limitation of not covering the private schools, the court order clearly stated that the “conversion cost (i.e., of converting foodgrains into cooked food) would have to be borne by the government and not by the students or school managements”. The court order stipulated provision of food of 300 calorific value including 12 gms of protein per day for at least a minimum of 200 days in a year. Anticipating leakage, the court even proposed regular monitoring of food safety and food quality. But it never occurred to the powers that be that the mid-day meal workers—90% of the cooks are women and many of them are the main bread-winners for their families—also have children and they too have a right to food and it is impossible for a family to survive on Rs.42 with three meals a day.
The injustice would be all the more glaring considering some other realities. The same Bihar government, on 26 September2018, fixed minimum wages for 69 occupations—the notified scheduled employments—at Rs.267 per day for unskilled workers, R.268 for semi-skilled workers and Rs.325 for skilled workers. By all considerations, the mid-day meal cooks would qualify as skilled workers only. They should be getting Rs.325. But as they have been given the label of ‘volunteer’, they are getting only Rs.42. The irony is that a sweeper in the same school would be getting Rs.257 per day while the cook would get only Rs.42! But a cook preparing food for Nitish would get Rs.325. Equal pay for equal work may be a lofty principle of the Indian constitution but in practice it is observed more in breach.
In other States like Tamil Nadu or Kerala, workers would have simply abandoned this work and nobody would report for duty to work for Rs.42. but in Bihar these workers numbering 2,48,000,preparing food in 70,000 schools in 38 districts, continue with their commitment to the children but have taken to the path of struggle to get decent wages. They started an indefinite strike on 7 January 2019 demanding Rs.18,000 as minimum wage, the amount fixed by the Seventh Pay Commission to the government employees in the lowest pay band. Their other demands sound quite reasonable and justified. They are demanding salary for 12 months a year instead of for 10 months as at present. They also demand payment in time every month as usually the salary is delayed for 6 to 7 months in the case of many workers. Other demands are more modest. They are demanding the status of government employees with statutory benefits like ESI, PF and maternity benefits, fixed work and fixed working hours, two sets of dress per year, causal leave, Rs.3000 pension and an appointment letter!Above all, they are pleading for a place to sit and toilet facilities.
On 17 January 2019, while Nitish Kumar was addressing a public meeting, some striking mid-day meal workers went there and from the audience started waving rotis saying, “We serve them food but we don’t get it ourselves!”
The angry Nitish Kumar retorted: “This is not the way to protest, disturbing a Chief Minister’s programme. If it is entirely within my command, I would have disbanded this whole scheme and would have gone for direct transfer of money to students’ accounts. They can eat at home and come. But what to do? This is a central scheme!” Such was the callous and arrogant response from a Chief Minister who otherwise goes scrounging for money from the Centre. He said, “The Centre is giving only Rs.1000 and I am already giving Rs.250. Not a single rupee more!”
Not long ago the national media lionised Nitish as a ‘great moderniser’ of Bihar. But you just scratch him and he sounds like a lord getting the work done through chattel slaves! The wage economics that if the wages go up the consumption would also rise and that would be good for the local economy of Bihar is beyond his grasp.
Bihar however is not alone in doling out such miserly sweatshop allowances. Chhattisgarh pays Rs.1200 to its mid-day meal workers, West Bengal Rs.1500, Odisha Rs.1000, Uttar Pradesh Rs.1000, Telangana Rs.1200, Tamil Nadu Rs.6000–7500 (for helper and cook), Karnataka Rs.2600, Pondicherry Rs.9000, Punjab Rs.1700, Haryana Rs.2500, and Kerala Rs.6000. This is a bigger national shame! (IPA)

Saturday, 9 February, 2019