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EDITORIAL

Another Betrayal

Government Lands

Amidst the escalating protests by mid-day meal cooks across the State, the headlines are being hogged by foodstuff unfit for human consumption allegedly being fed to hapless schoolchildren by NGOs. At some places, infuriated cooks have thrown onto streets and rivers or fed to pigs stale and rotting food, some of which also said to be contaminated with dirt, hair, worms, insects or rodent excreta. Suspicion is being loudly voiced as to what impelled the ruling political dispensation in Dispur, so assiduously concerned about ‘jaati’, to meekly hand over the mid-day meal (MDM) scheme to NGOs from outside the State, all 15 of them. One of them even happens to be a blacklisted one, its contract reportedly terminated by the Delhi government previously for serving poor quality meals to schoolchildren; yet this particular NGO is now being considered by the powers-be in Dispur to be capable of doing a good job in large districts like Tinsukia, Sivasagar, and Dhemaji. The opposition Congress has gleefully jumped into the fray — Youth Congress workers laying siege to the Sarva Siksha Mission headquarters in Guwahati and clashing with the police, while senior Congress leaders are demanding a high-level probe into allegations of sub-standard food being served by the NGOs. For good measure, the Congress is piously asking why the State government is hell-bent in laying off MDM cooks when it should be hiking their remunerations. It is a question the opposition party should also be asking itself — after all, it was ruling the State in 2010 when it decided in principle to shift the mid-day meal responsibility to NGOs, and thereafter took the decision in December 2012 to implement the handover in a phased manner. Maybe the NGOs selected would have been different had the Congress continued holding the reins in Dispur, but surely the basis of that decision (being implemented presently) should be examined now. Then to the MDM cooks were demanding a hike from the shamefully paltry ‘honorarium’ of Rs 1,000 they were getting, apart from seeking regularization of job and service benefits. Why were their demands not accepted then? Maybe because that would have been too big a burden to take on, there being over 1 lakh MDM cooks? The then State government was already apprehensive of a huge hit the exchequer would take after provincialization of thousands of schools and teaching jobs, apart from the mega appointment of TET teachers. And so the MDM cooks were left to their pathetic lot, as ‘voluntary workers’ under the Education department and still earning at the rate of Rs 33 per day to date. The truth is — irrespective of whether Congress, BJP or any other party forms the government — it is neither capable nor willing to walk the talk of creating jobs, never mind the promises made during election times. The trend has been inexorably shifting towards contractual jobs in the face of worker protests against privatization and job insecurity. But governments are loath to admit this because private players have already made it clear they are not in the business of creating jobs, that it is ever-higher profits they are single-mindedly after. The picture is more complicated in Assam as far as MDM cooks are concerned. Lest we forget, government schools are increasingly becoming unviable with students and guardians turning away; there is no knowing which government school will get amalgamated to another one, which in turn means re-assigning teachers and other staff. Then there are government schools whose managements have never been clean and transparent about mid-day meals; when they had the power, there were allegations galore about overbilling the government with inflated student numbers and schooldays, procuring substandard foodstuff or selling grains and pulses in the open market. Such a corrupt school management betrayed not just their students but also gave their cooks a bad name. The Sarva Siksha Mission authority has now reportedly assured that the selected NGOs would be screened for quality of food served as per guideline, food safety officers will be involved to ensure quality, the efficacy of centralized kitchens in servicing distant schools will be examined, and the services of MDM cooks would be continued to help distribute food among schoolchildren. The State government needs to show political will and sagacity here so that schoolchildren continue to get wholesome, nutritious meals under this well-intentioned scheme. If in the process it gives some justice at last to MDM cooks, so much the better.