Lucknow: There seems to be no end to the strife of the cooks and helpers who prepare mid-day meals for hundreds of students of government primary schools on a daily basis under the centrally sponsored 'Mid Day Meal' scheme as they have not received salaries for over eight months now.
Despite tall claims of the state government about not facing a fund crunch, cooks and helpers alleged that they had to run from pillar to post to get their honorarium. They claimed they were informed that no budget has been released for them.
For Sunita Devi, It has been eight months since she drew her last salary, claiming that they are facing a dearth of funds and are struggling to meet their expenditures.
"We have been forced to borrow money from others to meet our daily needs.
It is difficult to feed my family, including two daughters and a son. Our persistent attempts to get salary from the authorities concerned have been in vain. We have submitted a memorandum of our demands and brought the matter to the notice of the district administration. All we get to hear is that they have forwarded the file to the higher authorities, but have not received funds from them," Sunita, a cook at a government primary school in Harakh of Barabanki district told Newsclick.
Pushpa Yadav, another cook in Ballia district, has a similar story to share. She said she did not have money to celebrate Diwali as her salary is pending for the past five months. "We are feeling so helpless in front of our children that we cannot buy a piece of new clothe for them. Our Diwali is going to be dark but who cares at the end," she told Newsclick while controlling her tears.
Echoing similar sentiments, Aradhana, a cook in Bahraich district, where about 2,000 female workers looking after everything from sweeping, mopping and cooking mid-day meals on a daily basis are waiting for their honorarium for eight months. They last received their salary in March, during the Holi festival.
“It has become difficult to bear household expenses. We have been forced to take money on interest from acquaintances. The government must understand our plight and release our salary,” said Aradhana and Ramya.
"Working around six to eight hours a day including the preparation, actual cooking and distribution of food, cleaning the vessels and premises etc., we are not even recognised as workers and not paid minimum wages," they alleged.
The “pro-employee” image of the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party government seems to have gone for a toss with nearly 3.95 lakh cooks of the state government bracing for a “lacklustre” Diwali due to the alleged non-payment of their salaries for the past eight months.
According to the data given by the basic education department of the UP government, a total of 18 lakh students studying in 1.68 lakh schools under the mid-day meal scheme in the state benefit from the scheme. According to the government, 3.95 lakh cooks are employed to provide mid-day meals to the students on a daily basis. These cooks are given an honorarium of Rs 1,500 per month for ten months.
Raising concerns over the "meagre salaries" paid to cook-cum-helpers, Renu Sharma, president of Uttar Pradesh Rasoiya Karmchari Sangh, called it a matter of national shame and demanded their pay be hiked.
"It is a matter of shame for the government that the mid-day meal cooks are paid Rs 1,500 per month, that too for only ten months a year. Even this amount was never paid on time. Besides, at a time when MGNREGA workers are being paid Rs 400 per day as wages, we get only Rs 50 per day despite working for more than seven hours and multiple works at schools other than cooking food," Renu told Newsclick.
Taking a jibe at the government, Renu said that the education ministry last week renamed the mid-day meal scheme as 'PM Poshan Shakti Nirman Scheme'. It also announced a budget outlay of more than Rs 1,31,000 crore over five years but the question arises whether changing the name of the scheme would improve the situation on the ground, she said.
"The government which is unable to pay Rs 50 per day to its employees for the past eight months, what will do they do after changing the name of the scheme? Even if they distribute honorarium, we don't know how one could survive in Rs 1,500 per month when a gas cylinder currently cost Rs 950 and prices of other essential commodities including edible oil and vegetables are skyrocketing. We are women and we are in large numbers in Uttar Pradesh; if the government does not pay heed in a week or so, we will teach them a lesson in the assembly elections," Renu further added.
Meanwhile, a government representative at Basic Education Department, wishing anonymity, told Newsclick that due to some technical issues, the payment got delayed which has been sorted out now and very soon they will get their honorarium. "We have brought the matter into the notice of the higher authorities. We received the funds and it will get disbursed in two three days,” the official said.
The state government has hired cooks and helpers for preparing mid-day meals to provide food to students up to Class VIII in government schools. At the same time, cooks and helpers feel that they are paid meagre salaries of Rs 1,500 a month.
DARK DIWALI FOR MID-DAY MEAL COOKS
This festival season is turning into a bitter memory for around 3.95 lakh cooks employed by the central government under the 'Mid-Day Meal Scheme'. These women cooks — some of whom are lone breadwinners of their families — have not been paid their salaries from March onwards,
Malti and Abhilasha, both are economically poor and have more than eight-nine members in the family. They opted to work as cooks as the duo had no other option since they are the lone breadwinners in the family. They are working at Jungle Dhushan government primary school in Gorakhpur region. Speaking to Newsclick, the duo said though the salary delay is a constant, it is worse when they cannot celebrate a festival properly because of it. “There has been an eight-month delay now; our children want new clothes and toys, and we find ourselves helpless,” they said.
The demands of Uttar Pradesh Rasoiya Karmchari Sangh included minimum wages of Rs 15,000 per month, implementation of the recommendation of 45th and 46th Indian Labour Conference, conferring of 'worker' status, ensuring social security and recognising the mid-day meal workers as the fourth-grade employees among others.
It must be noted that Allahabad High Court on December 15, 2020, while directing the state government and to ensure that cooks are not paid wages less than the minimum prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act, stated, "Persons employed as cooks throughout the state of Uttar Pradesh are being paid such paltry amounts which clearly qualify as forced labour."