The All Assam Primary and Upper Primary Midday Meal Cook and Helper Association protested in front of education minister Siddhartha Bhattacharya’s house here on Tuesday in support of their demands, including immediate removal of the NGOs engaged for preparing and distributing midday meals to primary schools of the state, The Telegraph reported.
The workers who returned to work after protesting for 10 days since November 1 blocking national highways at Kaliabor, Golaghat and Tinsukia, were assured by the government that their jobs were not at risk. But the workers have demanded a written assurance from the minister on making their jobs permanent and protecting the rights of women workers by ensuring a minimum wage of Rs. 9,600 per month.
As per reports, the state government handed over the task of cooking and distributing midday meals for primary schools to 15 NGOs from outside the state starting November 1, 2019. The decision drew flak from over 117,000 meal workers across the state, who had been employed in the job since 2005, and began protesting demanding their reinstatement. Following this, delays in midday meal distribution and cases of alleged food poisoning led to the questions being raised over the quality of food being served by the NGOs and further intensification of the protests.
Several organisations like Students’ Federation of India, Democratic Youth Federation of India, Assam State Krishak Sabha, All India Democratic Women’s Association, Citu, Joint Council of Trade Unions and Guwahati Mahanagar Unnayan Samiti also extended their support to the protesting workers and submitted a memorandum to the chief minister through additional deputy commissioner of police Gunendra Deka, demanding immediate suspension of the NGOs.
In the matter, Rita Choudhury, Elementary Education Joint Secretary said, “I have assured them that I will arrange for them to meet the authorities on Wednesday. We have called 10 representatives from the association.”
Trishna Nath, the Association adviser, laid clear demands regarding the case. She said, “Our only condition to sit at the negotiation table is a formal announcement by the state government on immediate removal of the NGOs. We will not accept alternatives to our demands.”
She said the association would not tolerate any government attempt to privatise school kitchens. “Privatisation of school kitchens will also privatise 117,000 meal workers of the state,” she claimed.
Nath insisted on the education minister and Axom Sarba Siksha Abhiyan Mission director Samsher Singh attending the meeting. “We will not talk with other representatives,” she said.
With the protest and allegations in mind, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal put the centralised kitchen services on hold and ordered a probe into the allegations.
On Sunday, Singh directed all the deputy commissioners of the districts to resume school kitchen services and suspend the centralised kitchen run by NGOs until further orders.
This is not the first time that midday meal workers in Assam have taken to the streets. On October 1 this year, midday meal cooks under the All Assam Midday Meal Karmachari Union had protested in front of the office of Deputy Commissioner stating that involvement of NGOs would deprive them of the meagre monthly remuneration that they are receiving now and also deprive the children of good quality cooked food.
The workers had also demanded that their wages be hiked by the state government. It should be noted that a midday meal cook receives a mere Rs 1,000 per month as salary. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has been demanding a minimum wages of Rs. 18,000 for them for quite a long time.
Protests in Lakhimpur had also intensified early in November with workers alleging that the food served by the Parash Agro Society NGO was of low quality and unhealthy with the mixture of broken glass, mouse faeces and other inedible materials.
In July 2019, midday meal workers in Andhra Pradesh had staged a protest in Vijaywada against the privatisation of the meal scheme for the fear that it would lead to the loss of employment of women workers for whom these jobs were of crucial importance and also sub-standard food for the children.
Why the need for privatisation?
The Assam government had taken a decision to hand over the implementation of the MDM scheme in government-run schools to NGOs in 2010 and finally handed over its responsibility in 2013 to NGO Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) for providing packaged food to the students which began in a phased manner.
The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-profit run by ISKCON, has partnered with the mid-day meal scheme in these states to provide lunches to school students. However, it has refused to include eggs, onion and garlic in the food, going against the recommended nutritional guidelines of the scheme. The NGO refused to include these items based on the argument that it can only provide a satvik diet—“a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.” The Tripura government has also entrusted ISKCON to run mid-day meals schemes in the 20 schools handed over to it.
Is this an attempt at the Hinduisation of the tribals?
Former CM and Leader of Opposition said that the privatisation of the midday meal program, putting it in the hands of a single agency would have adverse effects on local businessmen who had been supplying raw materials for the scheme so far.
The arbitrary and unjustified decision of the Assam government has been met with high resistance for being ‘anti-people’ for a very long time now. Putting the future of more than 100,000, mostly rural women at stake, giving them paltry amounts of money for hard work, offering them no social security, along with putting the future of the children availing the scheme at stake, it is now to be seen if the government heeds the demands of the protestors and gives them back their jobs with their dignity.