Sad plight of the 14,000 people in Kerala who always have to dread school vacations

Be it rain or shine, these people have to be at school at sharp 7 am. But come the vacation, they are left in the lurch.
A noon meal worker at the kitchen in Government LPS Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram
A noon meal worker at the kitchen in Government LPS Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram(Photo | BP Deepu)

With the month of March having drawn to a close, students of Government Upper Primary School, Elamapal, in Kollam district of Kerala, are looking forward with excitement to the long summer vacation ahead. But there is one person whose heart has already begun to beat with trepidation -- the school's noon meal worker MO Bindu. She is clueless on how to make ends meet during her unpaid two-month vacation.

The 54-year-old is the sole breadwinner in her family.

Her husband KR Sreekumar is bedridden after he was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. While Bindu's daughter is married and lives with her in-laws, her son Sreejith, 29, is intellectually challenged and needs constant attention at home.

Bindu's usual work day begins at 4 am as she has to complete all her household chores and reach the school by 7 am. After cleaning the school kitchen and surroundings single-handedly, Bindu starts her task of preparing the noon meal for 220 hungry kids -- all the way from Lower Kindergarten to Class VII.

At sharp 12.30 pm, students in the kindergarten have to be fed. Lunch time for the other students is at 1 pm.

The usual menu includes rice, two vegetable side-dishes and moru curry (seasoned buttermilk) or sambhar. Milk and egg are also offered on certain days of the week. But preparing the noon meal for 220 students within the limited time she is given is an everyday challenge for Bindu.

"Some of the children attend school mainly for the noon meal. The very thought of the children remaining hungry is unbearable. So, be it rain or shine, I have to be at school at sharp 7 am," says Bindu, who is currently in her 14th year of service as a noon meal worker.

A noon meal worker at the kitchen in Government LPS Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram
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Like Bindu, there are over 14,000 noon meal workers in the state who are paid Rs 600 per day as honorarium. Based on the number of days the school has classes, a noon meal worker can earn up to Rs 12,000 a month on an average. But delayed disbursement of honorarium is an issue they have been facing for the past many years.

"Sometimes we remain unpaid for months on end. We struggle to run the household and meet other expenses," laments Bindu.

When the dues of many months accumulate, the noon meal workers stage protests in front of the official residences of ministers in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram.

"After the protests grab news headlines and embarrass the government, the dues of many months are released in one tranche. This has become a routine affair now," rues Bindu. She wonders why noon meal workers are the only category of labourers who need to agitate at least twice a year to get paid.

Last year, the government provided Rs 2,000 per month to the noon meal cooks as a special allowance during the vacation. This year, there has been no such assurance from the government.

The chances of that happening look bleak. The honorarium of January was only credited into their bank accounts a few days ago.

"Since the noon meal scheme is a centrally sponsored one, the state government cites delay in the distribution of funds from the Centre as the reason whenever our honorarium is left pending for months. Whatever be the actual reason, it is the noon meal worker who ultimately suffers," points out S Sakunthala, state president of the School Pachaka Thozhilali Sanghadana, an association of noon meal workers.

Another issue they face is the norm that stipulates only one noon meal worker for up to 500 students. Sakunthala says it is practically impossible for a person to prepare food for 500 students in the limited time and do all the cleaning work as well. To meet the target, the noon meal workers engage helpers who would then claim half of their daily earnings.

"It is high time that the government revises the norm and assigns one cook for 250 students. Also, the honorarium, presently at Rs 600, should be raised at least to Rs 900 to ensure a decent living for thousands of women engaged in this sector," Sakunthala said. Their demands to consider them as part time contingent workers have also fallen on deaf ears. Some of them have spent up to 30 years on the job.

A noon meal worker at the kitchen in Government LPS Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram
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With the Lok Sabha elections round the corner, the noon meal workers hope the state government would at least disburse their pending dues and announce a special allowance for the summer vacation, if not agree to all their demands. The next government at the Centre should increase funding for the noon meal scheme and disburse it in a timely manner, she demanded.

However, sources in the state General Education Department said Kerala is the only state that ensures such a high honorarium for noon meal workers.

"As per the Centre's guidelines, noon meal workers are entitled to only Rs 1,000 a month," an official said.

The Centre's frequent changes in the PM-POSHAN scheme guidelines have also complicated matters and led to inordinate delay in disbursal of funds, the official said.

Whatever be the reason the grim reality remains that it is finally the noon meal workers who are left waging a dire battle.

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