After students refuse to eat food cooked by Dalit woman, she is fired for ‘wrongful appointment’
A Dalit woman, whose appointment as a cook in a government school in Uttarakhand sparked a boycott of midday meals by “upper caste” students, lost her job on Wednesday after authorities decided that norms were allegedly flouted in her appointment.
Officials in the state’s Champawat district said the principal of the Sukhidhang government inter college (GIC), Prem Singh, didn’t get Sunita Devi’s appointment as the bhojanmata (person who cooks midday meals) cleared by higher authorities. Secondary schools are known as inter colleges in some districts of the hill state.
“We found during the inquiry that the principal of the college had failed to follow the norms in the appointment. After this, we cancelled the appointment of the Dalit Bhojanmata unanimously,” said RC Purohit, chief education officer (CEO) of Champawat district.
Sunita Devi was appointed as the bhojanmata on December 13, replacing Shakuntala Devi, an upper caste woman. On Devi’s first day, all students consumed the midday meal together.
But a day later, some 40 upper caste students in classes 6 to 8 -- out of a total of 66 pupils in these classes -- stopped eating the meals and started bringing tiffin from home, said Prem Singh.
Parents of the upper caste children backed the boycott and alleged that Devi had been chosen as the cook by overlooking a more deserving candidate, Pushpa Bhatt, a Brahmin. The incident sparked protests and prompted the government to set up an inquiry.
On Tuesday, Purohit , deputy education officer (DEO) Anshu Bisht visited the inter college on Tuesday and called a meeting of the school management committee (SMC), parent teacher association (PTA) and the village head.
“The principal should have taken approval before the appointment but he failed to follow the norms. As per norms, approval is must from DEO before the appointment. Now, whole process will be again conducted and the Dalit bhojanmata can again apply,” said Purohit.
Till the appointment of the new cook, another bhojanmata, an upper caste woman, will make the midday meals. “I made the children of every caste sit with one another and eat the midday meal on Tuesday. There is no problem between parents and children now,” the CEO added.
Government schools are mandated to provide a midday meal to all students to encourage attendance and ensure adequate nutrition. There are two posts for cooks in the school. The other cook belongs to the upper caste community.
“Our higher authorities found some lacuna in the appointment process and cancelled the appointment of the Dalit bhojanmata. We will again start the process for this post as per norms. All children have started eating midday meal from today cooked by at college,” Prem Singh said on Wednesday.
Parents of the upper caste students said they were satisfied with the government decision.
“Parents are satisfied with the inquiry and decision of education officers. Process of the appointment has to be conducted again. We hope all norms will be followed in the appointment of bhojanmata. Upper caste children have called off the boycott and are having midday meals as earlier,” said Narendra Joshi, president of the PTA.
The move to dismiss Devi was sharply criticised by many activists and rights groups, who said it reeked of caste discrimination and bias.
“This is a social evil that upper caste students boycotting the midday meal cooked by Dalit woman. In this case, the authorities should appoint her again and set up an example,” said PC Tiwari, president of the Uttarakhand Parivartan Party, a political party registered with the Election Commission of India.
Devi couldn’t be contacted for comment.
“This kind of discrimination will alienate scheduled caste people from the society. Dalit woman should be given opportunity to serve as bhojanmata if she fulfil the norms and parents of upper caste students must understand that it will strengthen relationship in the society,” said Anita Arya, a local activist.