Mid-Day Meal and ASHA Workers Struggles

Three Day Hunger Strike of Bihar Mid-day Meal Workers

There are about 2,28,000 rasoiyas (mid-day meal cooks) working to prepare midday meals in government schools in Bihar, most of them women. They, specially the women, responded very well to the attempts by the CPI-ML to organize them, and on 17 March they submitted a memo of 17 demands to the Chief Minister, the main demands being government employee status and increase of honorarium to 15,000 per month. On 17 May they organized a conference in Patna and formed the Bihar Rajya Vidyalaya Rasoiya Sangh affiliated to AICCTU. When the government failed to meet any of their demands they decided to further strengthen their agitation.

The teachers’ agitation of May-June in Bihar forced the government to bow down to the extent of giving a wage scale, albeit very low. This was an inspiration to the rasoiyas and they decided to stage a relay hunger strike and dharna on 8-9-10 July in front of the CM.

A massive rally marched from Gandhi Maidan on 8 July led by AIPWA General Secretary Meena Tiwari, Rasoiya Sangh State President Saroj Chaubey, State Secretary Sohila Gupta, Anita Sinha and others. AICCTU State Secretaries RN Thakur, Ranvijay Kumar and Rambali Prasad also participated in the march. Addressing the rally, the speakers said that women workers play the biggest role in implementing all the welfare schemes of the government, but the government does not give these workers their due. They are given a mere pittance of 1,000 as honorarium which is far less than the minimum wage fixed by this very government.

Nowadays workers, doctors, teachers, are all being made to work as contractual workers and their labour is being exploited. The Joint front of the contractual and honorarium workers has been formed to fight against this exploitation and has fought some victorious battles. The next agitation will be held on 5-6-7 August during the Assembly session, during which it will be ensured that no midday meal is prepared by workers at the honorarium of Rs 1,000. They reminded the government that as per the government order number 2401/18.7.2007 the minimum honorarium must be Rs 15,000.

The third day of the hunger strike saw the biggest rally of about 2,000 rasoiyas, with the maximum number coming from Motihari. The meeting was addressed by CPI(ML) State Secretary Comrade Kunal and Central Committee member K D Yadav. They appealed to the rasoiyas to join in full numbers with the nationwide bandh call given by 6 Left parties for 21 July.

The government took no cognizance of the hunger strke on the first two days but on the third day when both gates at R block were blocked, the Magistrate promised to meet a delegation, following which the strike was called off with pledges to make the 21 July national bandh a huge success.

An incident that followed this agitation underlines how these workers are denied basic dignity and safety. On 9th July, Munni Devi, a mid-day meal worker at the Bhelwara primary school in Sampatchak block, Patna district, was beaten by a teacher till she fell unconscious – as punishment for having attended the 3-day dharna in Patna. She had to be hospitalised for treatment. CPI(ML) activists protested and ensured that an FIR was lodged against the teacher. An AIPWA fact finding team led by Rasmuni Devi visited the spot and found that the teacher had been harassing Munni for some time. AIPWA also held a protest march demanding arrest of the teacher who assaulted Munni, but he is yet to be arrested. Instead Munni is being threatened with dismissal from her job. A protest dharna will take place at the Block headquarters on 25 July.

Voices From the Struggle

(Saroj Chaubey recounts some of the voices of women mid-day meal workers who participated in the dharna at Patna).

Sona Devi

6 months back, Sona Devi was a mid-day meal worker who was too shy to speak in public. Today, as Bihar Rajya Vidyalay Rasoiya Sangh joint secretary, she gave a long speech at the dharna. She had spent her early childhood years in the Masaurhi block of Patna district, and the anti-feudal struggles of the CPI(ML) in that area left a lasting impact on her. This memory, sleeping within her, was revived after she came into contact with the party again in the past few months. She began her speech with a song – ‘Jhuki jhuki piyava goliya chalave, shaheedva bhaiya ho nanadi’ – about the militant anti-feudal resistance. She used the song to tell her fellow workers that the militant Left activists had sacrificed their lives in the movements of the 1980s, thereby achieving increased wages of agricultural workers from 1 kg to 5 kgs of grain. She said, “We can achieve an increase in our wages today by being part of this same movement and radical Left politics. The Government can kill one, it can’t kill a united and strong organisation.”

Kalavati Devi

Kalavati, Secretary of the Maner block unit of the BRVRS union, said we should neither support Modi nor Nitish. We should support and strengthen AIPWA that is with us in our struggle. Kalavati had contacted AIPWA after reading newspaper reports about the mid-day meal workers’ struggles.

A Worker From East Champaran

A mid-day meal worker with her small baby in her arms, had joined the protest demonstrations in the burning June sun and the July monsoon rain. She did not get a chance to speak publicly at Patna because there were so many other speakers, but after the dharna she came up to me and said “Didi, being part of the struggle with you has opened my eyes. I’m ready to come anywhere to be part of the movement.”

Kamli Devi

The joint secretary of Fatuha block Kamli Devi has established herself in her school as a fiery activist, whose very presence deters authorities from wrong-doing. She said, “We became mid-day meal workers expecting that the Government would recognise us as Government employees. After 8 years of toil, we find that the Government has just ignored us. We are not begging for charity – we are demanding what is our right. If any administrative officer makes food at my house I will pay them Rs 2000 – I expect them to pay us for cooking in Government schools!”

Assembly Gherao by Jharkhand Midday Meal Workers' Association

Under the banner of the Jharkhand State School Midday Meal Workers Association, midday meal women workers and conveners gheraoed the Jharkhand Assembly with a 30 point demand charter on 27 March 2015. Thousands of women workers from all districts in Jharkhand blocked the Assembly gates for hours causing traffic between Birsa Chowk and Dhruva to come to a standstill. They warned the State government that if it continued to exploit the workers, they would launch a massive agitation. Demanding regularization of the midday meal workers, they said that this is a strong link in the chain of the fight against privatization and liberalization.

Addressing the meeting the Midday Meal Workers Association President said it is unjust that midday meal works get a mere pittance of Rs 833 per month. They require not the status of honorarium workers but the full rights which are due to all workers.

Addressing the meeting AICCTU State General Secretary Com. Shubhendu Sen said that employment and minimum wages are fundamental rights and workers will not give any government the right to snatch from them the hard won rights of workers.

The chief demands of the midday meal workers association are: minimum wages of Rs 200 for all workers, life insurance benefits, two uniforms per year, 4 bath and washing soaps per month, service regularization, and other rights. The meeting was addressed by Comrades Anita Devi, Premnath Vishwakarma, Ramanuj Kumar Singh, Bhuwaneshwar Kewat, Devaki Devi, Hari Ram, Sumitra Das, Rajkumar Rajwar, Yashoda Devi, Rameshwar Soren, Indu Devi and others.

Bihar ASHA Worker's Strike

The ASHA Workers Union in Bihar (Gope Group) had started a state-wide strike on 21 June 2015. Though the ASHA workers form the backbone of the various health care programmes in India, there has been no attempt by the governments to address their essential concerns. Denied monthly honorarium, regularisation, basic facilities such as toilets and changing rooms in work places and subjected to continuous harassment by hospital doctors and staff, more than 15000 ASHA workers joined the strike bringing the rural health care services to a standstill.

During the period of strike, several demonstrations, marches and other programmes were undertaken. However instead of responding to the demands of the striking workers, the state government initially chose to respond by way of threats and oppression. There were concerted efforts to break their spirit by way of spreading several rumours and misinformation.

However, undeterred by these threats, the ASHA workers continued to fight for their rights including- fixing a minimum of Rs. 15,000 as monthly honorarium, regularisation and dignified working conditions. AIARLA also extended support to the strike and announced effigy burning of the Chief Minister in front of various block headquarters between 23 and 25 June. A letter of demands was submitted to Health Department officials by Com. Shashi Yadav, State President of the ASHA Workers’ Union.

Finally the concerned authorities were forced to respond and talks were held between the Principal Secretary of the Health Department and a delegation comprising of Com. Shashi Yadav, leader of Gope group federation Com. Rambali Prasad and AICCTU leader Ranvijay Kumar. The Principal Secretary assured of concrete steps towards fixing of a monthly honorarium and regularisation of ASHA workers. The delegation was also assured the cases filed against the ASHA workers and the disciplinary actions on the striking workers will also be taken back.

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