PATNA: More than 2 lakh midday meal cooks, who are on indefinite strike for the last 10 days in Bihar, threatened to intensify their protest demanding a minimum wage and other benefits under social security and labour laws if the government failed to fulfill their demands.
The ongoing indefinite strike of mid-day meal cooks, locally known as rasoiya, since Januray 7, has badly hit the scheme in the government-run schools. As a result, there is no noon meal scheme for hundreds of thousands of children which, in turn, has drastically decreased attendance.
The indefinite strike began under the banner of Bihar Rajya Madhayan Bhojan Rasoiya Sanyukt Sangarsh 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).
“We work hard, like mothers, to prepare dishes for the noon meal under the mid-day meal scheme, but are neglected and ignored. We have been forced to struggle for basic necessities. We are not even getting minimum wage of a worker as per government own rule” Sona Devi, a cook at Bankipur middle school in Fatuha in Patna district toldNewsclick.
Sona’s views were echoed by Manju Devi, Shanti Devi and Kamla Devi, all midday meal cooks in different schools in Patna, who are among thousands of mid-day meal cooks, angry and upset over the state as well as central government’s apathy.
They agitated cooks, primarily women, said they have been fighting for their rights for a long time for higher honorarium, government employee status, and Rs 18,000 monthly wages till they are declared government employees. Last year, too, the cooks staged a protest in Patna and other places in the state.
CITU leader Vinod Kumar, president of Bihar Rajya Midday Meal Workers Union, said 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.
“It is unbelievable that they are getting less than the official minimum wages of a worker despite the fact that they are skilled workers,” he said, adding that “what is a matter of serious violation of social security and labour laws is that they have not been given any appointment letter or any document despite working for over 10 years”.
Kumar said these cooks work in schools from 9 a.m to 4 p.m but government treated their work as part-time, which is a violation of not only labour laws but human rights also .Cooking noon meals for children of schools are in reality a full-time job, he added.
AICCTU leader Saroj Choubey, who is state president of Bihar Rajya Vidhalya Rasoiya Sangh, said their condition is very pathetic. About 90% cooks are women in Bihar.
”Most of them, particularly women are widows and BPL (below poverty line) category from the marginalised and depressed sections of society. They belong to the poorest of the poor background but government is treating them badly. Other than them, who will work for Rs 33 per day?” she added.
Choubey 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.
“Their struggle for basic rights have once again exposed the much hyped women empowerment claim of the Nitish Kumar government in the state”, she added.
Choubey said cooks should be given Rs 18,000 honorarium till they get government employee status and the government should stop calling them part-time workers. “It is not proper to give honorarium for only 10 months in place of all 12 months of the year,” she added.
“During ongoing strike, government agencies are playing politics and tricks to downplay it by manipulating online digital data to show that the mid-day meal scheme is not affected in government-run schools. The fact on the ground is that strike has been a 90% success. Besides, under pressure from top brass of the administration, school teachers are forcing children to cook meals in some places or hiring labour,” Choubey alleged.
Elaborating on the intimidating tactics of the Bihar government, Choubey said that authorities had been threatening striking cooks that they would be removed and contract workers would be appointed or the mid-day meal scheme would be haned over to NGOs
”These women have no social security or even a minimum wage. Not to talk about health insurance and pension. They are regularly insulted and mentally tortured by threats to remove them. But they suffer in silence to survive,” she added.
AITUC leader Ramakant Akela, convenor of Bihar Rajya Vidhalya Rasoiya Sangh,said the striking cooks’ main demands include hike in wages, maternity to insurance and provision for basic necessities .
Prime Minister Narendrae Modi had announced that he would double the incentive of ASHA workers and honorarium of Anganwadi Sewika-Sahaikas. Even the Bihar had government assured ASHA workers and Anganwadi workers of higher honorarium, after which they called off their month-long strike last week.
“But there was nothing for midday meal cooks. Not a single penny for them. Is this not an injustice? The cooks are boiling with anger and are ready to fight for long” Akela said.
AIUTUC leader Anamika said state government had cheated them and central government has betrayed them.
Meanwhile, the striking in all 38 districts of the state are planning to protest in Patna, the state capital, and will gherao Chief Minister Nitish Kumar official residence on January 23 and 24,” Vinod Kumar said.