Banki Devi (38), a tribal widow from Jharkhand’s Simdega district, takes care of her three children aged 15, 16 and 12 by working as a midday meal (MDM) cook in a government school.
But, with the Raghubar Das government’s decision to privatise MDM in schools, she fears she won’t be able to finance her children’s education anymore.
“We receive just Rs 832 in a month, which is not enough to sustain the family and our children’s education. Now, the government wants to snatch away our livelihood too. What will we be left with?” she said.
Hundreds of women like Banki have been protesting outside the Governer’s House since May 8. With thin towels on their heads to beat the harsh sun, they sit under a makeshift tent on the road the entire day, demanding an increased salary of Rs 6,000 apart from soaps and aprons.
The Jharkhand cabinet on May 31 passed a proposal for setting up of centralised kitchens in cities for preparing MDM. These kitchens would be run by private and public sector companies under their Corporate Social Responsibility. These companies would also take the responsibility of transporting the packaged food to various schools in the city.
With limited sources of income, these women say they have been left in the lurch and have no other option but to protest.
According to members of Jharkhand Pradesh Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh (JPVRS), there are close to 1.20 lakh MDM cooks in Jharkhand.
Cooks from different districts take turns to travel long distances and come to Ranchi every day to protest against the privatisation of kitchens. Cooks from Simdega and Pakur districts protested on Sunday. These women cook their own food and sleep on the road at night. They also have to bear the absence of toilets for a day and return the next day.
In their absence, MDM have been stopped in schools for two days. There are 45,680 government schools in Jharkhand and over 50 lakh children studying here benefit from the centre’s free meal scheme for school students.
Another cook, Kiran Ekka from Simdega said she has been working as a cook for the past 10 years. “The sky-rocketing prices of many essential items is putting added burden on us,” said Kiran, who has four children, and her husband is a farmer.
Josephine Kujur from Pakur said one of their demands is to have a proper shed where children can eat their meals. She said her school lacks a boundary wall and even tables and chairs for students.
“Ours is an indefinite protest till the government pays attention to our demands. These cooks belong to extremely backward sections of society and the government must take action on their demands,” said Ranchi secretary of JPVRS, Ramanuj Kumar Singh.