Bihar cooks’ strike stalls mid-day meal in schools, seeks wage-hike
Nitish Kumar’s Bihar govt spent ₹125 Crore in developing a park and ₹500 Crore to build a museum in the state capital. But it refuses to pay women who cook mid-day meals more than ₹1,200 a month
Even as the strike by cooks who prepare mid-day meals in primary and upper-primary schools in Bihar entered the 15th day on Monday, the state government appears in no mood to relent and concede the demand to raise their salary. On the contrary, the government has described them as ‘volunteers’ and is planning to make alternative arrangements.
The poor pay is not, however, confined to Bihar. Mid-day meal cooks are paid ₹6,000 and above in Tamil Nadu, ₹2,500 and above in Haryana and ₹1,800 and above in Punjab. The Union Government, which supports the scheme, however, has not yet revised the payment of ₹1,000 p.m. (One thousand per month) fixed way back in 2009. Bihar pays its cooks ₹1,200. The amounts above the central allocation are met by state governments.
The cooks, the overwhelming number of them being women, widows and single women, are not only expected to cook every day but also clean the utensils before and after cooking.
The minimum wages recommended by the 7th Pay Commission is ₹18,000 per month and that is what the women are demanding besides facilities like maternity leave. They have also been demanding government employee status. There are an estimated 2,48,000 cooks in over 70,000 primary and middle schools in the state.
Conditions are much better though in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In Tamil Nadu the meals are supervised by an organiser, who is paid ₹12,000 a month while the cooks are paid ₹6000. They are also eligible for a monthly pension and gratuity after retirement.
According to details given out by the Union Government, there are 2.5 million cooks across the country, 40% of whom are from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. UPA government in 2013 promised to double the salary of one thousand Rupees. The pending proposal was taken up in July 2014 by the NDA government but the cabinet committee deferred the proposal.
The cooks spend four to five hours in the school to prepare the meals, serve the children and clean the utensils and cooking devices. They have been pointing out that after the six-hour stint in schools, they are not able to work elsewhere either.
Bihar has been the worst performing state in providing mid-day meal to children. Experts and activists alike have pointed out governance deficit, poor supervision by vigilance committees and parents and absence of grievance redressal locally. Corruption and leakage of funds have also been suspected in the state for a long time.