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Dehradun: On November 25, Sunita, a Dalit woman, secured a job as Bhojan Mata, a cook, at a local government school in Sukhidhang village of the Champawat district, Uttarakhand. Even though the monthly salary paid to her is a meagre Rs 3,000 a month, the job promised her a steady income to support her two children and an ailing, unemployed husband. But Sunita’s nightmare started soon after she cooked a meal at the school on December 14, as scores of students belonging to ‘upper castes’ simply refused to eat the food prepared by her because she is a Dalit.
The parents of these students are not only enraged by Sunita cooking for their children but also questioned her appointment. The students even started bringing their own lunchboxes daily to avoid eating meals cooked in the school. The school has 230 students and mid-day meals are offered to 66 students who are studying in junior classes.
“I was asked not to cook for children because I am a Dalit. It was so humiliating. But they (parents) were so adamant. I have nowhere to go seek justice for my job and dignity,” said Sunita.
In Uttarakhand, for the mid-day meal scheme in government schools, women are appointed to cook and are called “Bhojan Matas” (loosely translated as mother cooks). Their only task is to prepare meals in the school’s kitchen for students.
In a normal case, one would witness scores of students sitting in rows and eating freshly-cooked food in the schools. But not so, as this case demonstrates, if a Bhojan Mata is a Dalit. In the hilly state of Uttarakhand where caste discrimination is rampant, students, prodded by their parents, objecting to have food cooked by lower castes or Dalits has been a perennial issue.
Sunita, herself a mother of two, is very fond of children and it was heart-breaking to her when students refused to eat the food she had prepared because she is a Dalit.
“On December 13 when I had joined the school, all students had eaten meals without any problem. But, the next day I was shocked when they refused to eat the food I prepared. The students have been told by their parents not to eat,” said Sunita.
Attempts to cancel Sunita’s appointment
On December 14, parents, mostly villagers, reached the school to pressurise the teachers to prevent Sunita from cooking for the students.
Narender Joshi, a villager, claimed that the parents were against Sunita’s appointment as there were more needy women who were overlooked by the school during the selection for a cook. “Pushpa Bhatt, a widow, had been selected for the post in the school, but Sunita was appointed at the last minute. We are demanding a probe into Sunita’s appointment and know why Pushpa Bhatt was not given the job.”
Speaking to The Wire, the school principal Prem Arya confirmed the incident and said that a departmental probe was underway into the matter. “Sunita’s appointment was done as per rules, but several parents objected and refused to allow their children to eat food cooked by her,” said the school principal.
In a state that has a staggering eight lakh unemployed people, getting a government job is no small achievement, as in the case of Sunita. A Bhojan Mata gets Rs 3,000 wages per month from the education department and the job is not permanent.
“I had applied for the job and I got selected by the school principal. I worked for a week. But the upper caste parents humiliated me so much that I could not gather the courage to join back,” said Sunita.
Apart from Sunita, the school has another Bhojan Mata, an upper-caste woman, who is now cooking meals for the students.
Sensing the seriousness of the case, Champawat district education officer, R.C. Purohit, on Tuesday reached the school to tackle the situation by talking to students and the school’s staff.
“Today we held a meeting with the school staff, students and the local villagers about the matter,” said Purohit. On being pressed further about what and against whom the likely action the education department would take, Purohit said, “I cannot comment on the matter since the departmental probe is still going on.”
Sunita is devastated after being humiliated by local ‘upper caste’ villagers. “The upper caste villagers are powerful and would not allow me to work in the school. I will not be surprised if they make my appointment invalid and give the job to any upper caste woman,” said Sunita
Vineet Tomar, the district magistrate of Champawat, said, “The district education department has been instructed to look into the appointment irregularities and also into the reports that students and their parents objected to a Dalit Bhojan Mata serving meals in the school.”
The hill state has over 11,000 schools in 13 districts and over 20,000 women are working as Bhojan Matas for cooking and serving mid-day meals for junior classes (up to the sixth standard). According to the education department, the selection and appointment of Bhojan Matas are carried out at the district level on the basis of recommendations from schools.