Till recently, they cooked meals for lakhs of children. Now, Assam’s midday meal workers have threatened to go on a hunger strike.

The workers, nearly 120,000 in number, say it is the last resort to protect their jobs. Starting November, the state has outsourced cooking and distribution of meals to non-profit organisations in 17 districts of the state.

“We will not stop protesting till the government gives in writing that our jobs are safe and we will continue to get the same remuneration as earlier,” said Trishna Bora of the All Assam Primary and Upper Primary Mid-Day Cook and Helpers Association.

Switching to centralised kitchens

State officials say the decision to employ non-governmental players was in keeping with the latest Central government guidelines, passed in October. They prescribe switching to centralised kitchen facilities in “identified rural areas which have good road connectivity and viable cluster of schools, for purpose of leveraging efficiency gain”. Food is prepared in large quantities at these privately run kitchens and then transported to schools.

Earlier, centralised kitchens were restricted to urban areas. “If meals are cooked in the school, the entire school machinery revolves around preparation of these meals and actual teaching would suffer,” said Shamsher Singh, mission director of the Axom Sarba Siksha Abhiyan, the nodal agency responsible for implementing the midday meal scheme. “Plus, there were also many complaints about irregularities on the part of the head teacher.”

The midday meal scheme entails providing one hot cooked meal a day to children enrolled in primary and upper primary education in all government schools. It is aimed at reducing school drop-out rates and fighting malnutrition. The Centre and state governments jointly fund the scheme. The people, overwhelmingly women, engaged in preparing these meals are called “volunteers” and paid a flat “honorarium” of Rs 1,000. According to government data, more than 25 lakh “cook-cum-helper[s]” are engaged across the country in making food as part of this scheme.

But over the years, the Centre has outsourced meal preparations to non-profits. The government’s October guidelines, experts say, institutionalised this shift toward centralisation.

Assam was one of the first states to implement the guidelines. The incumbent cooks and helpers, the state said, would not lose their jobs but their role would be limited to distributing food to the children. Their wage of Rs 1,000 per month was to remain the same.

Protests break out

Yet protesters, which include Left-leaning trade unions, took to the street, blocking highways in several parts of the state. They insist that the centralised kitchens have made them dispensable and the non-profits would displace them sooner or later. “There is no guarantee that our salaries will not be reduced,” said Sabita Boro, who has been cooking at a school in Udalguri district since 2005. “We want the old system to be back.”

This fear, activists say, is rooted in past experiences. When the non-profit Akshaya Patra was roped in by the government to serve the urban areas of Kamrup (Rural) and Kamrup (Metro) districts in 2010, the organisation allegedly reduced the honorarium of existing cooks and helpers to Rs 500.

‘Contaminated’ food

There have also been complaints about the quality of food after the switch to centralised kitchens. “Around 500 children from different parts of the state have had to be hospitalised after consuming the food,” alleged Dharmakanta Gogoi, an anti-corruption activist.

Gogoi said this alleged contamination was inevitable, considering food delivered at 9 am in schools was likely prepared as early as 6 am. “How can food remain edible for so long on the move in a container?” he questioned.

Singh said his office has received no formal complaints about the food quality under the new scheme. Yet, his office has ordered a probe “on the basis of media reports”, and asked for the old system of localised cooking to be restored until the inquiry is completed.

In some parts, students refused to eat the food prepared in the centralised kitchens, citing bad quality.

Experts are also sceptical about centralised kitchens. “The freshness of the food is likely to be compromised since the density of schools in rural area is not that high,” said economist Reetika Khera, who has extensively studied the scheme. “And if, to prevent the food from going bad, they are putting it in refrigerated vans, it is going to increase costs.”

Apart from that, the centralised form of cooking came with less accountability, said Khera. “If the food is bad when it is being cooked in schools, parents and teachers can intervene,” she said.

The impasse continues

But the Assam government seems convinced about the merits of going central. “We have been successfully doing it in two districts since 2010,” said Singh.

Singh said the existing cooks and helpers also had no reasons to complain. “They are getting the same amount of money for less work,” said the official. “Earlier they had to go to the market, arrange firewood, but now they have to only distribute.”

A written commitment about their jobs, however, was “not possible”, said Singh. “They are not government employees; they are only volunteers.”

The workers, on their part, are also sticking to their stand. “We will not rest till we get to cook and serve freshly cooked food to our children like we used to before,” said Bora.