"We can't afford to purchase a bottle of mineral water from the market to quench the thirst from this meagre amount, which we get as our daily remuneration," says Halima Bano (not her real name), who works as cook in Government Girls Middle School Surrundi – some 40 kilometers from district headquarter Ramban.
Like other hundreds of Mid Day Meal workers, Bano – a widow in her late forties – walks almost three kilometers on foot through hilly terrain and scattered settlements to reach school, where she along with two other colleagues prepares meals, washes utensils and sometimes carrying food stuff from market to school on their heads for students enrolled in the school.
Engaged in 2005 on meagre remuneration of Rs 500 per month, under National Programme of Mid Day Meal in Schools (MDMS)- a flagship programme of the Government of India (GoI) aiming at enhancing enrolment, retention, attendance and simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children studying in Government Schools and the Centres run under Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS)/ Alternative and Innovative Education (AIE), and National Children Labour Project (NCLP) schools of all areas across India- these cooks and helpers get very low remuneration.
Though the scheme might have benefitted scores of vulnerable school going small boys and girls in this mountainous district in last one decade, but these mid day meal workers continue to suffer after being paid meagre Rs 30 a day.
"We were engaged in 2005 on monthly wages of Rs 500 and since then the amount was raised to Rs 1000," the mid day meal workers said, adding, they have been doing this job on meagre money with the hope that one day the administration and government would wake up from deep slumber to appreciate their work and engage them permanently with deserving salary.
Although statistics are clear and administration is well aware of the fact that in all government run schools these women work whole day on all working days, still the concerned officials have turned blind eye and to run the show are paying them little amount. "We were promised a better future, but in last one decade nothing has changed on ground, we have been left on the mercy of God," they lamented.
The government understands their plight well, but due to the administrative hiccups and bureaucratic inefficiency, these "poor" people have to bear the brunt. "Deliberately underpaying and denying them fair wages for their fair work is violation of labour laws," said Zahid Bashir, a senior journalist of the district.
"Hundreds of women engaged as cooks and helpers in almost all the 836 government run schools in the district can't live even hand to mouth on Rs 1000," he said.
Despite engaged for more than a decade now, these workers have never been paid full year wages, rather some 8-9 months of remuneration is paid annually. "We don't receive our salary monthly, but just twice in these months, which also amounts to our miseries," Rafiqi Akther (name changed), another cook said.
"We demanded that cooks must be given a minimum wage of Rs 8000 monthly and employed for 12 months instead of the present period of 8-9 months," she added. "We have worked for years now, government must consider our genuine demands, so that our future is not ruined".
Not only this, these women have not been provided any social security, medical benefits, provident fund and any other benefits.
Thousands of women engaged as cooks and helpers in all the government run primary and middle school in the state live hand to mouth because of poor financial condition and proper support despite working full time. "At the time of sudden health issue or untoward incident with the family member- particularly with children, our families are thrown into financial turmoil," Akther said, adding, children are the most affected because they have to discontinue education due to lack of financial backing.
These workers said that centre as well as state government was meting out step-motherly treatment to them. "I think even people working under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in villages are provided many benefits, while as we have been totally neglected," she said.
What is heart-wrenching many of these workers have provided a piece of land to the education department for the construction of school buildings and were engaged as cooks and helpers as compensation in this mountainous district.
When the cooks demand a hike in salary, the state government holds the Centre responsible for the low salaries. "This is a flagship program of central government and 75 percent share of these workers' wages come from central government, while as state has to share only 25 percent," said Zakir Hussain, who looks after the legal cell at Chief Education Office (CEO) Ramban.
"Initially, they were engaged with a monthly remuneration of Rs 500, which was increased to Rs 1000," Hussain said, adding, Rs 750 per month was disbursed from central government and Rs 250 from state.
He also admitted that these low paid cooks are not being paid on time. "Usually, education department receives funds twice during an academic year that is why cooks and helpers are not being paid every month," he added.
Last year, the state government's decision of merging 1218 schools in Jammu division and more than 2400 schools in Kashmir division under rationalization process has compounded to the miseries of mid day meal workers. "I was engaged in my neighboring school, which was last year merged with another school some three kilometers away from my home. Now, I have to walk three kilometers from home to school morning and evening every day," Bano said.
The state government has clubbed nearly 4000 schools in the state, thus adding to the miseries of thousands of mid day meal workers who have to walk many kilometers through hilly terrain to join the kitchen at newly located school.
Mir Iqbal is Media Fellow with Save the Children, J&K and can be reached at email@example.com