Monday 17 January 2022
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Mid-day meal row: Caste or candidacy issue?

Contrary to what the outrage brigade has been crying hoarse over since this morning, the Uttarakhand case, where students of the so-called upper castes are alleged to have refused to accept food from a woman of a Scheduled Caste, has turned out to be a dispute over candidacy, where a reportedly better person was denied the job of bhojanmata (head chef for a mid-day meal programme of a given school). A bid section of the news media has branded the act of the students in District Champawat as practitioners of “social discrimination and caste prejudice”.

Parents of the students who are boycotting the mid-day meal allege that the management committee and Prem Singh, principal of Government Inter College, Sukhidhang, overlooked a deserving candidate to appoint Sunita Devi, a so-called Dalit, for the post of bhojanmata.

“We had selected one Pushpa Bhatt, whose child is enrolled in the college, in an open meeting held on 25 November. She was needy too, but the principal and the school management committee sidelined her and appointed a Dalit woman as bhojanmata,” said Narendra Joshi, president of the school’s parent-teacher association. “Since the number of the upper caste students is more than the scheduled caste students, so an upper-caste woman should be appointed as bhojanmata,” Hindustan Times quoted them as saying.

Bablu Gahtori, a parent of two students in the school said, “A woman who was really needy and separated from her husband was selected in an open meeting but she was overlooked by the SMC and principal. She should have been given the opportunity to earn bread and butter instead of the woman who has been appointed as bhojanmata.”

The perspective of the other side follows.

Sunita Devi, the woman belonging to a scheduled caste, was appointed recently as bhojanmata at the government secondary school in Jaul village of the Sukhidhang area in District Champawat. She was tasked with preparing meals for students of Classes 6 to 8.

“On the first day (of her joining work), students of upper caste had the mid-day meal cooked by her without any fuss, but from the next day, they started boycotting the meals,” said Prem Singh, principal of Government Inter College, Sukhidhang, said on 20 December. “What made them stop eating the mid-day meals is beyond my understanding. Of the total 57 students, today only 16 students belonging to the scheduled caste had a meal here.”

Government schools are mandated to provide a mid-day meal to all students to encourage attendance and ensure adequate nutrition. There are two posts for cooks in Sukhidhang high school. When Shakuntala Devi, one of the cooks, retired, Sunita Devi filled up the vacancy.

She was appointed following all government norms, Singh claims. “We had received 11 applications for the post of bhojanmata. She was selected in an open meeting of the parent-teacher association and school management committee held in the first week of this month,” the principal said.

The “inter college”, as some secondary schools are called in Uttarakhand, has 230 students on its rolls. Some 40 students belonging to upper castes out of 66 students of Class 6 to 8 have stopped eating the mid-day meal a day after Sunit Devi started work on 13 December, Singh said. Rather than eat food prepared by a Dalit, they have opted for bringing tiffin from home, he said.

Singh said he has informed higher authorities about the appointment and subsequent boycott. “Some parents are creating an unnecessary controversy,” he said.

“We are surprised to see the sudden change in behaviour of our fellow students. We were having meal without any discrimination till last week,” said a girl student, who belongs to scheduled caste community and wished not to be named.

The education department has set up an inquiry to look into the matter, said RC Purohit, the chief education officer of Champawat. “I am personally looking into it,” Purohit said, adding that deputy education officer Anshul Bisht has been tasked to lead the inquiry. “Appropriate action will be taken after his report.”

Boycotting mid-day meals cooked by a member of the Scheduled Castes is a violation of law that is harmful to social harmony, said Harshbardhan Rawat, ex-chairman of the local municipality.

“We are living in a modern age and such kind of may damage social cohesiveness,” Rawat said. “The administration should set up a high-level inquiry into this matter and punish the persons responsible for sparking such a controversy.”

Hariom Parkhi, a Hindi teacher at the school said, “I am in charge of Nation Service Scheme (NSS) and earlier I was in charge of scout in my college. I have never seen such discrimination in children. We prepare food during camps and students of all castes eat without any discrimination. We have upper caste and scheduled caste students and they all study with harmony but this incident has send a wrong message of casteism. This is not good for our society.”

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