CHENNAI: Out of 1.5 lakh noon meal worker posts across Tamil Nadu, more than 59,000 (40% posts) are vacant, leading to significant difficulty in meaningful implementation of the scheme in schools. Most noon meal centers have only one employee in place of two workers. While the salaries and pensions of these workers are already low, they are also not adequately compensated for the additional work they are forced to do due to the staff crunch.
There are around 43,000-noon meal centers in the state, and most of them require at least three staff members — one organiser, a cook, and a helper. In centres where the student strength is more than 200, an additional helper is posted. While organisers are paid Rs 10,000 to Rs 22,000 per month, cooks and helpers are paid salaries ranging from Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 per month. The work timing is from 9am to 2pm.
Most of these employees have experience of nearly 20 to 30 years. Many of the organisers — whose job is to maintain accounts, procure groceries, vegetables and ration required for the schools — are handling more than one school due to the staff crunch. Most of the schools have only a cook or a helper, making it difficult for the staff to cook and serve food between 12.20 and 12.40 pm every day, sources said. The organisers are paid just Rs 600 more per month if they are given additional charge of a school.
“Imagine one person cooking for around 100 to 150 students within three hours and ensuring the quality of the food. We have to cut vegetables and peel the shells of the eggs which requires a lot of time. We have to serve the food to the students as well. Because of this, many of the workers are starting their work early. "
"There has been no recruitment over the past six years and the staff strength is depleting by the day. Through our talks with the government, we understand that they are planning to recruit only around 1,000 to 2,000 workers,” says a staff association member.
‘Recruitment delayed due to recent floods’
This has created a fear that the programme would be handed over to self-help groups like the breakfast scheme,” said a member of the Tamil Nadu Noon Meal Workers Association.
Another problem for the workers is the paltry pension of Rs 2,000 per month they receive after retirement. “Many employed in the noon meal program are destitute women. As the pension is not enough to manage expenses, many of them take up work in hotels.
Retired employees are being given Rs 2,000 for past seven years without even dearness allowance,” said an employee. Meanwhile, social welfare department officials acknowledged the staff shortage and said the recruitment was delayed due to the recent floods. We will start the recruitment soon, officials said.