Labour

How Much Is a Woman's Labour Worth? Rs 37 a Day, According to the Central Govt

Mid-day meal cooks in Bihar – mostly women from Dalit and Adivasi communities – are subject to the worst kind of institutional gender discrimination.

Patna/Jehanabad/Bhojpur (Bihar): On February 11, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi served the third billionth Akshay Patra mid-day meal in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, he said that his “government has given special focus on the nutrition of the children because a healthy childhood is the foundation of New India”.

“Modiji talked about his government keeping these children healthy, but who is cooking nutritious food for them? Did he mention them? No. Because in ‘New India’, cooking continues to be women’s invisible divine duty?” asks Poonam, a 40-year-old mid-day meal cook from Jehanabad district in Bihar.

The day Modi made this speech, Poonam was participating in the 35th day of a relay hunger strike by Bihar’s 2.5 lakh mid-day meal cooks. They had surrounded Bihar’s legislative assembly to protest what is presently the worst pay gap in India.

According to government data, there are 71,000 primary and middle schools in Bihar, which are serving mid-day meals to 1.2 crore children made by over 2,48,000 mid-day meal cooks, most of them women. Each of them is paid Rs 37 per day for cooking mid-day meals for up to 300 students. The cooking takes them 7-8 hours per day. Their salary rounds up to Rs 1,250 per month.

The Wire met over 69 mid-day meal cooks, all women, across five districts of Bihar and found out how the Indian state has subjected over 30 lakh women mid-day meal cooks to the worst pay gap and sexual harassment to create a cheap female labour economy.

‘Volunteers, not workers’

Poonam has worked as a cook since 2002. “All my life I had seen my family working as farm labourers on the land of the zamindars. I didn’t want to do that.” Poonam is from the Kahar community, classified as a Scheduled Caste community in Bihar. In a feudal system, Kahars would work as farm labourers for ten hours a day. Till 2002, they were given 10 kg rice and sometimes Rs 10 a day. “My husband used to spend all that money on alcohol. And you can’t lead a life on rice alone.”

In 2001, the Supreme Court issued a directive ordering all states to institute a warm school lunch – known as a ‘mid-day meal’ – in government primary schools. India’s Mid-Day Meal Scheme is the world’s largest school feeding programme, reaching out to about 12 crore children in over 12.65 lakh schools all over the country.

Cooking material in a classroom.

Several women, like Poonam, were hired in 2002 to cook this warm lunch for students from the most socio-economically marginalised sections. “The job was a chance at dignity and independence from abusive landlords for so many women like me. And I grabbed it,” she says.

At present, there are around 30 lakh cook-cum-helpers, 90% of whom are women. According to the Union government, there are 2.5 million cooks across the country, 40% of whom are from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Most cooks are appointed by the local community, often involving the local village pradhan. Women who are single breadwinners, widows, Dalits, tribal and from other marginalised communities, from Below Poverty Line (BPL) households, are preferred.

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What Poonam envisaged for herself was a far cry from the state’s vision of female labour.

According to the government’s documentation of the scheme, the cooks are ‘volunteers’ and not ‘workers’, paid an honorarium, not wages. They work for 7-8 hours a day, but their work is ‘part-time’. They have no social security, pension or other medical benefits. They are only paid for ten months a year, since schools are closed for two months during summer vacations in Bihar.

Anshu, Poonam’s friend, who is from the Pasi community also classified as a Scheduled Caste, has worked as a mid-day meal cook at the primary school in Ratni block of Jehanabad for 15 years. She says, “The idea that cooking is a voluntary job is in itself patriarchal. And in this case, it is the state’s idea.”

Cooks in Jehanabad.

When the mid-day meal programme started in 2002, the cooks were paid Rs 0.60 per child on the number of days the food was cooked. In 2009, the Union government increased its share of the wages to Rs 1,000 per month. It has remained that for the last decade, along with abysmal honorarium paid by individual states.

The southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka on an average pay least Rs 6,000 to the cooks. They are also eligible for a monthly pension and gratuity after retirement. Cooks in north India continue to be paid peanuts. They are paid Rs 2,500 in Haryana and Rs 1,800 in Punjab. Bihar has one of the lowest remunerations – till January 2019, their fixed honorarium was Rs 1,250 per month for ten months a year.

“Tell me, what kind of calculation is this? The planners assumed that there will also be a pool of poor, desperate women who will readily work for a pittance,” Anshu’s assertive voice emerges from her small frame wrapped in her beige saree with blue border.

The minimum wage for an unskilled worker in a restaurant in Bihar is Rs 257 for an eight-hour shift. The minimum wages recommended by the 7th Pay Commission is Rs 18,000 per month.

Such an abysmal gender pay gap in the framing of the mid-day meal policy finds its roots in the patriarchal assumption that female labour is disposable.

Flexible labour is often seen synonymous with female labour. Which is why, whether it is the state or contractors in general, employers exploit the unjust social division of labour based on gender.  They prefer to employ women because they assume they are willing to accept lower wages, work under inferior conditions and without job security – all things men would be unlikely to agree to for similar work. They also drop the demand for their rights as workers because of less social support.

Poonam and Anshu, mid-day meal cooks in Jehanabad and key organisers of the Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh.

Poonam adds, “Women should keep serving everyone. At home, the children, the guests, the state, the administration, the country. And in lieu of this work, you will be rewarded once in a while, not [be given] paid proper jobs.”

The latest data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD says that an average Indian woman spends 5.8 hours every day on unpaid work, while a man barely gives 51.8 minutes on similar tasks.

‘Part-time work’

On March 1, 2017, Ajay Tikrey, joint secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, wrote a letter to R.K. Mahajan, principal secretary, education, Bihar government, responding to writ petitions demanding minimum wage, social security, uniforms and medical benefits for mid-day meal workers.

He quoted the 2011 Punjab and Haryana high court order in Avtar Singh vs the State of Punjab and others, which read, “The court decided that in the cases of cooks getting honorarium in the mid-day meals, they are employed under contract which governed by terms and conditions of that contract and cooking cum cleaners cannot claim equal pay on the basis of equal work.  This is a part-time job as only one meal has to be cooked on a school day. Therefore the cook-cum helpers cannot be paid honorarium equal to minimum wages given to labourers.”

“The judge is clearly a man and so are all these babus in the government. They have never lifted a spoon in their lives. How will they know what it takes to buy raw material, clean, cook and serve meals to 400 students per day? They think cooking is less full-time than sitting on a chair and signing papers,” says Sona, as the 15 cooks surrounding her break into a loud laugh. They are meeting in Fatuha, a satellite town of Patna, once known for its handloom industry. The handloom industry perished, leaving several workers unemployed.

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Sona is one of the key organisers of the Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh, an outfit affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation, which now has a presence in 25 districts in Bihar.

She is in her late 40s and started working as a mid-day meal cook in 2011, after her alcoholic husband stopped trying to find work and she had three children to feed. She was initially told that her job was to cook for 300 students at the primary school along with another cook. The work timings would be from 6 am to 1 pm.

“My job description was to procure raw material, cook and serve the children, and clean the kitchen along with another cook. But it turned out to be very different, “she says.

Most government schools in Bihar still have no separate support staff to clean the school and toilets, or for maintenance and other chores. The teachers and administration pocket the budget for it. “I was initially made to sweep the entire school field every single day before I could start preparing to cook. That took me almost an hour and a half,” she says.

Most cooks The Wire met reported that they are forced to do extra chores. “If we don’t clean the school field, they make the children do that,” adds Sona.

Washing soot-laden utensils.

Similarly, while most schools are mandated to hire one cook per 25 students, that criteria is never met and one cook is burdened with cooking for up to 150-200 students on most days.

Vimla, who is 45 but looks over 60, has worked as a cook at Buddhu Chak Middle School for the past ten years. Her husband died in 2008. She says, “We have to fetch water from far away, since the school hand pump is mostly not functional. If you are cooking for 500 students, do they know how much water it takes to clean and cook? I start working at 7 am and only get done by 4 pm.”

There is a criminal miscalculation of the work allocated and expected from these ‘part-timers’. And while there is an assumption that poor women will work for any small amount, the oppression is all the more intersectional. Caste-based discrimination and a feudal attitude is unquestioned and commonplace.

Munni Devi started working as a cook in 2005. She like, most women cooks in Bihar, worked as a farm labourer for five kg rice after an eight-hour shift. The gender pay gap exists in farming too, and that is why she was paid half of what a man was paid. She is from the Chamar community, listed under the Scheduled Caste category by the Bihar government, and has faced immense discrimination and untouchability for years on end.

With a dead husband and three daughters to feed, she took up this job. “As a single Chamar woman, it is not very easy to live a life of dignity as a farm labourer on an upper caste landlord’s fields. You are expected to serve them in every possible way. That sickened me,” she says.

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When Munni started working as a cook, for the first year, she was only made to clean the school and the toilets because she was from an SC community. “The upper caste headmaster, even the women teachers still do not let us sit on the bench,” she says.

Similarly, some teachers designated only Brahmin cooks to cook food. The cleaning work and the washing of utensils was done by cooks from the marginalised castes.

Instead of being addressed as ‘cooks’ or by their names, they were and still called ‘dai‘, a generic north Indian caste term used for Dalit women who work as midwives. The term is not just bereft of dignity, but also creates stigma on the grounds of caste and class.

Ganga Devi, a cook in Bihiya, outside her house in Bhojpur.

Ganga Devi, a cook from the Bauri community, also an SC group, says, “We are not allowed to use the toilets we clean or eat the food we cook. Even when the rule is that the cook should first taste the food herself and then serve. Some kind teachers let us take home the leftovers so that we can feed our families.”

With peanuts for payment, leftover food helps the cooks a great deal. “Our headmaster takes the leftover food to feed his cows. Animals are more deserving than our children,” she says.

Most cooks are short built, petite and weak. The malnutrition levels within these communities is astronomically high. “If we don’t eat, how will we clean such big utensils? Sometimes, we have to clean the children’s plates. Up to 600 plates!” adds Guddan, also a cook.

She says that the teachers also feel entitled to get their lunch and an occasional foot massage. “Some of the teachers even forced us to work at their houses before school hours,” says Guddan.

Guddan Devi, a cook at a primary school in Patna, lives in one part of a private store room.

Like in most of India, for these women too, a government job qualifies as the highest aspiration for an illiterate, single woman. “Everybody respects a government servant,” says Guddan.

Pushpa Devi from the Musahar community, part of the Mahadalit category in Bihar, known for extreme poverty and high rates of malnutrition, has been cooking in a government primary school in Ara for the past nine years.

“All my memories of my mother are of her working. At home, as a farm labourer. From dawn till dusk,” she says. Her mother died when she was 8 and then her father remarried. “My stepmother and father didn’t care for me and my siblings. My father was an alcoholic. We roamed around and lived on the charity of so many neighbours and relatives. When I grew up, I decided that my daughters and I will not lead such a life,” she says.

When Pushpa Devi joined the school, she thought the question of self-respect will be better taken care of. She is a mother of three children – nine, five and three years old. She is the single breadwinner of the family as her alcoholic husband, who once worked as a painter, does nothing now.

Her children study in the same school where she works. Last month, she absented herself on account of sickness. The teacher, upset at Pushpa, abused and humiliated Parul, her nine-year-old daughter, in front of her classmates, calling her caste names. Parul was then made to clean the cooking utensils and the plates of her classmates. After that, she was sent home to fetch Pushpa.

It left a deep impact on Parul, who was embarrassed and did not attend school for almost the entire next month. “Even when a poor woman works hard for her children and family to do better, there are so many fences of caste and class to jump over,” says Pushpa.

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Since most cooks are landless, the cost of renting a house, electricity and water in urban areas is a huge liability. For people like Devanshi Devi, who takes a train every morning from Chhapra to Patna city and spends Rs 20 on the fare, it is even more difficult. “The attempt is to hold on to whatever that can be saved,” she says.

Anu is 35 years old and has cooked for eight years. Her alcoholic husband keeps forcing her to quit her job.  She voices a rhetorical question that many ask: “Lots of people say why do you work for such little money? Quit!”

And then comes the gaslighting. “He keeps saying that I have an extramarital affair in the school, that’s why I continue to work for Rs 1,250 a month,” she says with a smirk.

Sunita Devi serving a mid-day meal to students in Masauhri.

Guddan Devi, who cooks in the same school as her and also has an alcoholic husband, says, “You will see many men here sitting idle. They would prefer to sit unemployed than work on a smaller wage. They have a higher sense of self-worth, but women have to run the house and feed their families.” Anu smiles and adds, “When men don’t get work, they sit at home and start consuming alcohol. When we have to feed our family, we drink chai and do whatever work comes our way.”

For even such a paltry sum, the average delay in getting the payment is five months. “We only get paid twice a year, Holi and Diwali. We do not receive our salary for March and June, even though we get only 20 days off in the entire year. The teachers are obviously paid for all 12 months, even when they get more leave than us.”

Moreover, despite the government’s mandate, the money does not come into their accounts. Instead, it is deposited in the headmaster’s account.

“I keep hoping that someday, we will be permanent. We will be called government employees. And right now at least there is some employment, some source of income. That is keeping me going,” adds Anu.

The economy of cheap female labour

Every day, when Shakeela Bano reaches her house at 4:30 pm in Bhihiya, Bhojpur after cooking meals for 180 students and cleaning the Urdu Kanya Prathmik Vidyalaya, she rolls ten kg of incense sticks. For every kg, she is paid Rs 2.5. It takes her three to five hours, with the help of her teenage daughter, to make an extra Rs 25 each day. “All of us do some extra work after school hours. How can anyone assume that Rs 1,250 per month is enough to make ends meet?” she says.

By exploiting regressive patriarchal traditions to make women do gendered chores like mid-day meal cooking at low wages, without job security, the state has actively contributed to creating an informal economy of disposable, cheap female labour. This is not just exploited by the state, but also other contractors and sub-contractors in the unorganised market.

According to the Arjun Sengupta Committee report on social security for unorganised workers in India, 93% of all non-agricultural workers in India work in the unorganised sector. In urban areas, 96% of women workers are concentrated in the informal sector, which accounts for 50% of the national product; more than half of these women are home-based workers.

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According to the ILO convention of 1996, a home-based worker is one who is directly or indirectly employed by an employer and works at home or premises other than the workplace of the employer for remuneration. The report also states that after agricultural work, home-based work is the single largest working sector for women in India.

The gravest injustice of this situation is that mid-day meal cooks who supplement their incomes by home-based work and end up working for up to 16 hours a day are still not counted as ‘workers’ by the Indian state under the mid-day meal scheme or Indian labour laws.

Akhtari Bano, the sole breadwinner in her family who has been cooking at the same school for the past 12 years, supplements her income by stitching buttons on shirts. For each shirt, she is paid Rs 6. Years of cooking on the mud stove have weakened her eyesight. It takes her three hours to do four shirts and earn Rs 24 extra per day. “That too when there is no power cut or when we have enough oil to keep the lamp burning at night,” she says.

Akhtari and Shakeela in the school kitchen with a fresh batch of khichdi for students.

A lot of women also take care of the cattle of upper caste landowners, as part of a feudal system called ‘batai‘, where the caregivers, mostly Dalits and tribals, can use half the dairy produce of these animals. “Believe me, it is hard work and the milk is just enough to make chai for a day,” says Mamta, another cook.

Similarly, Roshan Pervez, a cook at the Urdu Primary school in Anchal, also supplements her income by stitching shirts. “I take two days to stitch one shirt. I am not an expert but learning because there is no other way but to learn new skills.” Each shirt gets her Rs 70. Her teenaged son, Jamaal, has also quit his studies to ‘train’ on making fancy bangles. He works from 10 am to 10 pm and gets paid Rs 2,000 per month. “Someone else also needed to earn so he left school,” she says.

According to the Arjun Sengupta report, there are 80 million women who do some home-based work for a living and make up for a total of 7% of the Indian population, yet they are not counted as ‘workers’. According to Women Workers and Globalisation, 2010, a book authored by Indrani Mazumdar, the average monthly income of a home-based worker is one-fifth of the legal minimum wage the country.

Sumati Devi, 55, who is also a single mother, has to rush to the vegetable market as soon as she comes home after school. She wakes up at 5 in the morning, works at home and then reaches the Adarsh Rajya Mahavidyalaya at 9 am in Jehanabad. At 4 pm, she leaves for home, to sell seasonal vegetables in the market. At the onset of summer, she starts selling peeled green chickpeas. Every 5 kg of chickpeas get one kg of peeled ones. It takes an hour to peel the 250 g that gets her Rs 20. “It takes me 30 minutes to walk to the mandi and another five hours to sell a kg. I get back home at 10 pm.” There is never a day of rest to keep things afloat.

There is no opportunity that the cooks let go off while picking up work. Gudia Devi, a cook at the Ranipuri school, stitches saree falls and petticoats in her neighbourhood. She gets paid Rs 20 per piece which takes an hour and a half. Seema, a cook at primary school in Patna Sahib, makes toys for children at home and sells them by the dozen. “My daughter helps me. Each dozen gets Rs 40 and takes up to three hours,” she says.

There is no clear demarcation or designated wage or price for the work they do. And just the way they have no negotiating power with the state as cooks, they have none with the contractors, subcontractors or the clients they work for.

Like Mamta says, “I tried making sweaters but wasn’t paid by the shopkeeper so stopped. I now work as a domestic maid in 3-4 houses before and after school.”

Mamta, Jyotsna and Manmadiya are the sole breadwinners of their families.

World Bank data from 2014 points out that India has 27% female labour force participation, one of the worst in the world. In urban centres, the gap between men and women’s labour force participation is 40%. These abysmal figures are a result of studies and surveys not taking into account the 80 million women labour force in home-based work, along with the three million mid-day meal cooks in India.

“Sometimes I wonder, I have no money, no clothes, no food. What am I earning for? Even the saree I wear is a gift from my parents,” says Poonam, pointing at the glittery thread work on her green saree.

She thinks aloud, “All the work done by men has regulated wages, with laws and guidelines and the compensation but the work done by women is not even work and they are at the mercy of employers” – even when these women are an integral part of the state and corporate economy globally.

“Sometimes I wonder if they want us to go back to the feudal landlord and live the life of humiliation. Farm labourers still get Rs 140 a day, we don’t even get Rs 40. The choice between dignity and survival is a hard one,” she says.

Smoky eyes and corruption

The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Scheme was launched by the NDA-II government on May 1, 2016, to distribute 50 million LPG connections to women of BPL families. The scheme aimed to safeguard the health of women and children. The idea was that clean fuel will protect them from the hazards of inhaling smoke, and also help the poor avoid going to unsafe areas to collect firewood.

On May 28, 2018, Modi said that though liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) gas cylinders came to India soon after independence (in 1955), only 130 million families had cooking gas connections in 2014. In the last four years, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has given 100 million LPG connections.

Out of the 69 mid-day meal cooks, The Wire met in Bihar, only five had gas connections in their schools to cook food. Reema, a 25-year-old mid-day meal cook in the Ratni block of Jehanabad, says, “When we told the school teachers to get a gas stove for us, they said, ‘Quit if you don’t want to cook on the mud stove with firewood.'” The same was reported by cooks in the Bihiya, Ara and Bandha area of Bhojpur district.

“Sometimes, we are also asked to use threshed mustard stalks or dried leaves of the palm tree to cook. Forty kg of firewood costs Rs 300 and the teachers pocket that money. The gas cylinder is even more expensive at Rs 1,000 per cylinder, which does not even last for a week when cooking food for 400 students per day,” says Gayatri Devi from Jehanabad.

The smoke from such large quantities of food getting cooked on a mud stove leads to permanent red eyes, incessant cough, tuberculosis and severe health diseases. “But who cares for the health of some poor women who are desperate to feed their families twice a day?” she says.

Cooking large quantities of food on a mud stove leads to severe health hazards for mid-day meal cooks.

Even the schools that got a gas connection did not refill the cylinder more than twice. The constant headaches and eye and chest diseases have a major impact on the health of the cooks.

“In the summers, cooking on the chulha for eight hours for up to 800 students makes me dizzy and nauseous,” says Puja Devi at the Irki Primary School.

One of the ideas behind mid-day meals was to encourage high school attendance in lieu of a good quality lunch for the most marginalised section of students. Each state has designed its weekly menu, with a complete dose of proteins, carbohydrates and minerals. Accordingly, the budget is sent to each school administration. “Instead of buying good quality raw material, teachers just get some stuff from their homes. They give us ration for 35 students and ask us to cook for 70 students,” says Kaushalya Devi, a cook in Bhojpur.

The corruption also extends to not buying vegetables and eggs for the meals and only feeding them khichdi, a mixture of rice and pulses. “When there is an egg, there is full attendance in schools. But that is becoming a rarity,” she says.

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Often, the children are asked to bring their own utensils from home and the plates bought for the school from the designated budget go missing. “Two years ago, a cook was fired because several children became unwell after eating the mid-day meal. Nobody questioned the headmistress who brought substandard oil from home just to pocket Rs 1,000” says Kaushalya.

To ensure that the mid-day meal is served in schools, the school in charge is supposed to upload pictures of food getting cooked onto an online system daily. “The teachers ask us to create fake smoke so that they can upload pictures on the server,” says Ramni, another cook in Ara.

Savitri, a cook at a primary school in Patna Sahib says that teachers have little thought for the plight of the students. “Forget duty, they don’t even have kindness for these poor kids who come to school because their parents can’t afford a square meal for them,” she says.

She narrates an incident where an entire batch of Class 10 students failed last year. “Most of them were from the Dalit basti. Now all of them have become thieves, drunkards and drug addicts,” she says. She says that very few teachers actually teach in these schools. “Earlier they used to knit sweaters, now they play games on their cell phones,” she adds.

Sexual harassment at the workplace

“When you work for such little wages and you cannot leave because you have to feed your family, everyone feels entitled to put a stick in your ear and a pen in your nose when you are resting,” says Sunita Devi, a 50-year-old mid-day meal cook  who worked for eight years at the primary school in Nizamuddinpura of Jehanabad district.

She, along with Rinku Devi, in her mid-30s, was fired on April 26, 2017, and since then they have not been reinstated. “The headmaster, Sunil Kumar, would often call me to his room alone. I would deliberately take Sunita along, but he would get angry with me for that,” says Rinku. When they started confronting him publicly for his overtures, he got upset and called a joint meeting of a few parents and some school staff members, and took the decision to fire them on account of “abusive language and absence from work”. Since then, new cooks have been hired at the school.

Rinku was fired as a mid-day meal cook in Jehanabad for protesting against sexual harassment.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 came into force on December 9, 2013. The legal requirement is that any workplace with more than 10 employees needs to implement the Act and form an Internal Complaints Committee to address such cases. Most primary schools in India still don’t have one. There is also no clarity on if ‘part-time scheme workers’ like the mid-day meal cooks are eligible to file a complaint with these committees, in case they have one.

Most scheme workers in India related to health, education and social welfare are women. This includes 28 lakh anganwadi workers, eight lakh Asha workers and 30 lakh mid-day meal cooks. A back-of-the-envelope calculation tells us that at least 70 lakh women employed directly by the government have no legal protection at the workplace from sexual harassment.

The only recourse available to the mid-day meal cooks is to approach the police. “I have a son who is dealing with mental illness, my husband ends up working only five-six days a month. I have three more children to feed. How do I go to the police?” asks Rinku.

Sunita is a widow and has been dependent on her sons for the last two years since losing her job. She had to withdraw her police case six months after filing it. She didn’t have the money to pay to the lawyer for every date. “What else could I have done? Plus, they kept saying who would harass an old woman like me. Have you seen the age of the headmaster? And as if molestation has anything to do with attraction or age,” she says.

Sunita Devi was told that she is too old to have been sexually harassed by school staff in Jehanabad.

In the absence of any legal recourse, most cooks have internalised a patriarchal discourse around sexual harassment as a defence mechanism. “When you are okay and strong, who can molest you?” says Gudia Devi, a cook from Fatua, as others nodded in agreement. “It depends on us, isn’t it?”

Poonam butts in, “Why is it on us? They talk about it all the time on the news, don’t you see? Big reporters, ministers trouble women in large offices. Can’t men control themselves? Modi says he is chowkidar but not for poor women, why?”

She is referring to the #MeToo testimonials that came up in the media a few months ago. She later says that she believed in self-blame too, till she became a part of the larger mid-day meal cook community and her union.

R.K. Mahajan, additional chief secretary, Bihar education department, says, “We have no knowledge of these sexual harassment cases, so we cannot comment.”

Strike: ‘Just stay at home, woman!’

Around 2015, when the mid-day meal cooks all over the state started to mobilise, it was seen as an affront to the status quo.

“It took us the longest time to convince trade unions across the board to treat this separately and take this seriously,” says Saroj Chaubey, president of the Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh.

Female labour has a gendered, subordinate position. She says, “Women work for several hours a day, but don’t have a workplace, an employer, a fixed income and official records for their back-breaking work. Sometimes, they do not even have their family’s sanction to openly endorse their identity as a worker in spite of contributing to the income of the household and the country’s informal economy. Trade unions have not worked enough on taking up their issues.”

In 2013, the UPA government had promised mid-day meal workers that they would double their salary of Rs 1,000. The pending proposal was taken up in July 2014 by the NDA government, but the cabinet committee deferred it.

The fund-sharing ratio between the Centre and the state was set at 75:25. In 2016, the NDA-2 government reset this ratio to 60:40. It was done as per the NITI Aayog’s report on rationalising all the Central welfare schemes. For poorer states like Bihar, it became an added burden.

On May 24, 2018, human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar struck down a proposal to increase from a paltry Rs 1,000 a month the honorarium for cooks-cum-helpers preparing midday meals. It was later reported that a note prepared by officials of the school education department under the HRD ministry had proposed to double the honorarium and provide it for all 12 months a year instead of 10 months. But when the note went to the HRD minister for approval, he did not agree.

“For a long time, we did small strikes to demand a pay hike. The prominent one was from October 5 to 9, 2018, when a lot of cooks organically came out and supported the strike. It conveyed to us that women are mobilising and feel so strongly about this that they are willing to step out to demand their rights,” says Chaubey.

Saroj Chaubey of the Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh, which now has a presence in 25 districts of Bihar.

On January 7, 2019, a joint committee was formed with four major Left-leaning mid-day meal cook unions – Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh, Bihar Rajya Mid-Day Meal Workers (Rasoiya), Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh, Bihar Rajya Madhyan Bhojan Karamchari Union – along with some some NGOs, and a strike organised all over Bihar.

The major demands were that mid-day meal cooks should be recognised as workers, paid minimum wages and given social security, including a pension. They were asking for an increase in the remuneration up to minimum wages, salary for all 12 months instead of 10, 180 days paid maternity wages and to stop the privatisation of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

While some teachers supported them, there were also some teachers who said, “Oh! So now you want to be equal to us?” says Kanti Devi, a cook from Fatuha.

Coming out for meetings and protests was seen as a deviation from their traditional roles, both by family members and neighbours.

The demands were not seen from a rights-based approach but a departure from their ‘womanly behavior’. Manju Devi says, “The other day, the village sarpanch said to me, ‘I didn’t know you had such a problem cooking and feeding your own neighbourhood children.'”

Manju Devi outside the school kitchen in Irki.

Gudia Devi’s husband is an alcoholic. After Nitish Kumar imposed a ban on alcohol in 2016 in Bihar, he consumed a solution that was mixed with paint for almost a year. Now that bootlegging has brought alcohol back to the market, at a higher price, he often steals the money that she hides to feed her children.

For the last ten years of her marriage, domestic violence has been a constant. “I had to initially hide that I was attending these meetings for the strike. When he found out, he said, ‘You want to be Facebook-wali neta?’ and injured my eye. The next day, some members of the Rasoiya Sangh landed up at my house and warned him. He now abuses me verbally but hasn’t hit me since then,” she says.

Sixty-one of the 69 cooks The Wire met had unemployed, alcoholic husbands. Their insecurity is a difficult territory to negotiate.

“Some of them have now moved to weed, which has made them even slower. With no money, they now consume solution used in paints or varnish oil,” says Rama Devi, a cook from Patna city.

Seema says that her husband is embarrassed that now that she has become a ‘leader’, no one recognises him. “Even though he does not earn, he thinks that me demanding my rights is a disgrace to him rather than a disgrace to women not having any rights,” she says.

Organising the strike was an exposure to a completely different space. “We were illiterate, so we could not make posters. So we made effigies of Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi instead. And composed songs,” says Sona.

During the strike, no meals were cooked in 7,000 schools in Bihar. The teachers threatened them with pay cuts and hiring new cooks, but that didn’t deter them. “We also started keeping a tab on which minister is going where. I asked my children who can read to find out from the newspaper and WhatsApp. That’s how we surrounded Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union minister, when he was in Patna,” says Seema.

Prasad met a few representatives, but nothing came of it. They similarly protested at several rallies attended by Bihar ministers.

Gulab Devi says, “Nitish didn’t even come to meet us in Patna. His helicopter kept flying over our protest site every second day. He thought we will be tired of the cold weather, but we didn’t budge.”

Some people started photographs on their mobile phones to prove they are participating in a protest to their husbands and school staff.

“They started characterising us, calling us dangerous troublemakers,” says Poonam.

The hunger strike was a relay one. Each evening, when the strikers would reach home, the husbands were least interested in what they were up to. “They were more concerned for their own dinners. So after a day of hunger strike, I would reach home, cook for him and then eat myself,” says Poonam.

The strike also served as an opportunity to learn new skills. “I am completely ‘angootha chhap‘ but I have learned how to take pictures and videos on the smartphone during the strike. Even selfies,” says Sona.

Sona, one of the key organisers of the Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh.

Finally, after a 40-day strike, on February 18, Nitish Kumar announced in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha that the state government has increased their honorarium by Rs 250. They will now be paid Rs 1,500 per month for ten months a year.

Since the increase was paltry, some said the union was using them for their own political gains. “‘You are women with no money, no prospects. They boost your ego, call you leaders, only to further their own political plans,’ my school headmistress told me,” recounts Urmila.

Some union members even dropped out, but new ones came and joined.

Anshu says, “People lampooned us and said what was the point of striking. We turn around and tell them had we not raised our voice, even this wouldn’t have happened.”

According to R.K. Mahajan, additional chief secretary, Bihar education department, “The state government has responded positively to the strike and that is why it increased their honorarium.”

There is hope and a new self-awareness. “Honestly speaking, till now, I thought that only rich, privileged, urban women fought for their rights, but now I know that for all women, the option to fight is there,” says Anshu.

The 2019 general elections

In November 2018, the salary for Bihar MLAs increased by 33%. “If it is right for men to demand better pay, it is right for women too,” says Poonam.

Both Nitish at the state level and the Modi government at the Centre have tried to privatise the mid-day meal scheme. While Nitish has proposed sending cash to students’ accounts instead of serving a warm lunch, the Modi government has been actively pushing corporate NGOs like Akshaypatra.

“Now that we have started demanding our rights, they want to shut the scheme. All our lives, we have been respectful, deferred, obeyed, done what was told to us. We can’t have that anymore. We know better now,” says Sona.

Students in a school corridor.

The 2.5 lakh mid-day meal cooks are now also being seen as a vote bank. After their strike, several political parties including the BJP have tried to make inroads into their union.

“When Modi came to Gandhi Maidan for his rally in March this year, the school teachers asked us to attend it. They said that is the only way our wages will be increased. They also offered us Rs 20 each for that. We did not go. The rally was a big flop,” says Renu Devi.

Even during elections, both assembly and general ones, the idea that women are a reserve army of labour is exploited to the hilt. The government schools are converted into polling booths, and the mid-day meal cooks are put in charge of feeding polling officers and police personnel. They are supposed to provide three meals – three-four courses each – at a cost of Rs 50.

Savitri Devi says, “Do you think it is possible to buy raw material, cook and provide so much food for this cost? Especially when police personnel have a bigger appetite and end up having 10-15 rotis per meal. We are not even paid by the government to do this. Just forced.”

“The other day I told the headmaster of my school to get us wages to do this. He said, ‘Election is important for you also. Can’t you even do this much for your country?’ I told him, ‘We are doing our bit with our free labour. This time give your wife a chance to cook and do her bit for the country.’ He got upset and threatened to fire me,” she says with a smile.

Most mid-day meal cooks do not find themselves being taken seriously in India’s patriarchal society. Rama Devi says, “If you don’t come to ask for our vote, why should we vote?”

Rama and Gita, cooks at the Bihiya primary school, outside the school kitchen.

Gulafsha says, “When they want votes, they come and ask our alcoholic husbands. Bribe them with alcohol and money. Even when we are the breadwinners for the entire family.”

Poonam says that this time, mid-day meal cooks will only vote for who the party that will increase their wages. “Their are 2.5 lakh of us. We have 15 lakh votes in our families and we will use them diligently.”

In September 2018, the Modi government gave a small wage hike to Asha and anganwadi workers. “There is a class and caste difference between us and them. They are better off than us economically. Plus, they mobilise people at the booth level for the government because of their influence in the village community. But he gave up on Dalit, backward, poor women like us, thinking we have no political power,” says Anshu.

Saroj Chaubey believes these women are modern-day bonded labourers. She says, “Women are not a priority for policy-makers. The investment in all social sectors is going down and it is going to intensify the problem of unpaid work, which is mostly done by women.”

Shashi Yadav, president of the scheme workers union in Bihar affiliated to the AICCTU, says women are the ones responsible for implementing all health, education social welfare schemes on the ground. “There is a feudal attitude towards them by the Indian state. They think that these are women sitting at home, give them some part-time work for peanuts.”

But now they tired of empty rhetoric, tired of waiting for political leaders to pay attention to them. “None of us want our daughters to lead the lives we are leading. I want to ask Modiji, how to ‘beti padhao‘ (educate my daughter) with Rs 1,250 a month? He has spent crores to promote the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao programme, but there is no money for actually betis,” says Ramni.

There have been similar strikes demanding better wages by mid-day meal cooks across the country. During the 40-day strike, members of the Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh came up with a song,

Mahila nikili roade pe
Modi neeti sharam karo
1.200 mein dum nahin
chhod diya o koi gham nahin.

Women occupy the streets,
Shame on Modi’s policies,
1,200 is so weak,
We are not afraid to leave.”

Sona says, “These are not special privileges we are asking for. We are not asking for separate legislation. We are asking for justice and equality. For equal wages. And we have the constitutional right to that as equal citizens of this country. We will show this in the upcoming elections.”

All images by Neha Dixit.

Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. She covers politics, gender and social justice in South Asia.

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