"We can't afford even a bottle of mineral water to quench our thirst from the meagre amount we are being paid on the name of daily remuneration," says, Halima Bano (name changed), who works as cook in Government Girls Middle School, Surrundi- some 40 kilometre from district headquarter Ramban.
Like other hundreds of Mid Day Meal workers in the area, Bano- a widow in her late forties walks about three kilometers on foot daily through hilly terrain and scattered settlements to reach school, where she along with two other colleagues prepare meals, wash utensils and sometimes carry food stuff on their heads to feed the students.
Engaged in 2005 on paltry remuneration of Rs 500 per month, under National Programme of Mid Day Meal (MDMS) in Schools – these cooks and helpers are forced to survive on Rs 30 per day.
Even as it aims at enhancing enrolment, retention, attendance and simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children, the flagship programme of Government of India (GoI) has nothing to offer to these workers and their children who burn their sweat from dawn to dusk.
"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 meager 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 at a deserving salary.
Although statistics are clear and administration is well aware of the fact that these women work full day on all working days, the concerned officials have turned blind eye and to force them to run the show on the same 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 manage even to time meal on Rs 1000 which they are being paid as monthly remuneration," he said.
The injustice do not end here, 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 adds to our miseries," Rafiqa Akther (name changed), another cook said.
"Our persistent demand for minimum wage of Rs 8000 monthly and full 12 month employment has fallen to deaf ears," she added. "We have worked for years now. Government must consider our genuine demands to save us from starvation" she pleaded further.
Not only this, these women have not been provided any social security, medical benefits, provident fund and any other benefits.
"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.
More heart- wrenching is the fact that many of these workers have provided their land to the education department for the construction of school buildings and engaged as cooks and helpers in lieu of it.
When the cooks demand a hike in salary, the state government puts blame on the Centre. "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 on them," said Zakir Hussain, who looks after the legal cell at Chief Education Office (CEO), Ramban.
"Initially, they were engaged against monthly remuneration of Rs 500, which was increased to Rs 1000," Hussain said, adding, of this Rs 750 per month is disbursed by central government and Rs 250 by state.
He also admitted that these low paid cooks are not being paid on time. "Usually, education department receive 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 further compounded their miseries. "I was engaged in my neighboring school, which has been merged with another school some three kilometers away from my home. Now, I have to walk all the way on foot to reach my school in the morning and back to home in the evening," Bano said.
Out of these merged schools, some 1834 schools were operating from rented accommodations, while as, rest of the schools were merged to ensure student- teacher ratio, government in a written reply had said in the State Legislative Assembly.
"The government said that these schools were clubbed or co-located to improve quality of education by providing adequate number of teachers and infrastructure. But they didn't take into the consideration our plight," said, a cook at Government Primary School, Gool.
As per official records at least 309 schools were either co-located or merged with the nearest government schools in Jammu district, 256 in Udhampur, 177 in Rajouri, 150 in Doda, 138 in Poonch district, 86 in Kishtwar, 76 in Reasi and 26 in Ramban district.
(Mir Iqbal is Media Fellow with Save the Children, J&K and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)