Patna: Braving the light rain and cold wind of the January winters, thousands of Bihar midday meal cooks – mostly women – staged a protest on Thursday for second consecutive day to gherao (form a barrier around) Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s official residence in the state capital, demanding minimum wage and other benefits like social security and labour laws.
A long stretch from the railway crossing near Gardanibagh police station to the gate of Gardanibagh government hospital was full of protesting midday meal cooks with red flags, posters, banners in their hands. They have turned both the sides of the long roads and adjoining areas into a temporary shelter since Wednesday, and continued staging protests on Thursday despite the bad weather.
Mahender Kumar, a police constable on duty near the protesting site, said there is no space to go from one end to another within more than 100 feet wide roads, as the Rasoiyas (midday meal cooks) have been occupying for over 24 hours. “For me, it is difficult to believe that women cooks can protest in such a big way”.
A midday meal cook, frail, middle-aged Afsana Khatoon, along with her husband, from Raniganj block in Araria district, was standing near the iron gate, and trying to listen to the address by different leaders of unions of midday meal cooks. “I have come a long way because it is a genuine fight for our genuine rights,” she said.
Meena Devi, Balua Devi, Sobha Devi and Munni Devi, all midday meal cooks from Madhepura district, seconded Afsana. “We are not going to sit silent till we get our demands fulfilled by the government,” Meena told Newsclick.
Protesting midday meal cooks from all 38 districts of Bihar have joined dharna at Gardanibagh, a site for protests in Patna. These protesters had spent the night under the open sky, and cooked and slept on the roadside on Wednesday night.
CITU leader Vinod Kumar, president of Bihar Rajya Midday Meal Workers’ Union, said that the two-day protest to gherao Nitish Kumar’s official residence, began on Wednesday. On the first day, more than 10,000 midday meal cooks joined, and more than double the number joined it on Thursday. “Look at the crowd of midday meal cooks. If some of them are leaving the protest site, many new faces are coming and joining. Response was tremendous, more than we expected,” he said.
It was the result of their two-day protest of the midday meal cooks here that state government has assured a delegation of their leaders, who were invited by the joint secretary of education department, that department will consider their demands by February 1. “But midday meal cooks’ indefinite strike will continue till government issues a notice in this connection,” Vinod told Newsclick.
The protesters have decided that they would wait till the government formally announces and give written assurance. “If government does not fulfil our demands as promised, midday meal cooks will stage a chakka jam in Bihar on Feb 4, and we will further intensify protest, and the strike will continue,” added Vinod.
More than two lakh midday meal cooks, who have been on indefinite strike for the last 17 days in Bihar, had last week announced the decision to gherao Nitish Kumar’s official residence on January 23 and 24, he said.
The ongoing indefinite strike of mid-day meal cooks, since Januray 7, has badly hit the scheme in the government-run schools. As a result, there has been no midday meal for hundreds of thousands of children, in turn, drastically decreasing attendance. This has been admitted by school principals, teachers and even the Education Department officials.
Honorarium Least Among Several States
The government pays only Rs. 1,000 a month to 2,48,000 cooks in over 70,000 government primary and middle schools in the state. About 90 per cent cooks are women in Bihar. Most of them are widows from the BPL (below poverty line) category as well as from marginalised and depressed sections of the society.
All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) leader Saroj Choubey, who is state president of Bihar Rajya Vidhalya Rasoiya Sangh, said, “The cooks were getting Rs. 5,500-7,500 in Tamil Nadu, Rs. 4,500-6,000 in Kerala, and similar amount in Pondicherry and Lakshadweep, but in Bihar, they are paid far less and irregularly.”
The indefinite strike began under the banner of Bihar Rajya Madhayan Bhojan Rasoiya Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti. It is a joint struggle of different federations and associations of mid-day meal workers supported by four trade unions – Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), The All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC) and All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU).
Angry over the government’s apathy towards their ongoing protest, the midday meal cooks had staged a protest with handmade bread in their hands at a function before Nitish Kumar in Sitamarhi district last week. There were protests in Munger and Saharsa districts as well.
The protesting workers said that they have been fighting for their rights for a long time – for higher honorarium, government employee status, and minimum wage of Rs.18,000 per month, till they are declared government employees. Last year too, the cooks had staged a protest in Patna and other places in the state.