Friday, August 01, 2003

Untouchable lunch?

Parvathi Menon

The Karnataka government's mid-day meal scheme for primary school children in all government schools across the State has a troubled start with initial reports of food poisoning, but the greater danger relates to upper-caste opposition to Dalits cooking the food ...

PERHAPS the major emerging obstacle to the success and spread of the mid-day meal programme comes from the upper-caste opposition to it. One head cook and two assistant cooks have been appointed to each of the 30,000-plus kitchen centres in 20 districts. In keeping with the State's job reservation policy, one of the posts has been filled by an appointee from the Schedule Castes/Schedule Tribes. This single administrative measure has exposed the ugly face of caste and its continuing grip on the consciousness and actions of people even in a relatively advanced and prosperous district like Mandya. Parents from the dominant Vokkaliga caste would simply not allow their children to eat food cooked by a Dalit woman. Caste opposition to the bisi oota scheme is also being stoked by those who wish to see the programme undermined for a larger political agenda.

Several villages in Mandya district have boycotted the programme, protesting against the appointment of Dalit cooks. "The whole of our village consists of upper-caste people. Our children will not eat food made by a Dalit. If the government insists on retaining the cook, then we will reject the entire bisi oota scheme. Our children can eat at home," G. Sadasivaiah, the president of the SDMC at the Government Higher Primary School in Gowdeyanadoddi village, told Frontline. The bisi oota scheme in this village, which ran for just four days, has been stopped. Once the cooks were appointed, upper-caste parents refused to allow their children to eat the school meal.

"In my school, only Dalit children eat the lunch provided in school," said Chaluvaraju, almost apologetically, to Frontline. As the Headmaster of the Government Higher Primary School in Uramarakasalagere village, Mandya district, Chaluvaraju is helpless about changing upper-caste mindsets. "We have 104 students who are eligible for the lunch. On the first day, all the children came. Once a Dalit head cook was appointed, the Vokkaligas refused to let their children eat here. Even the non-Dalit assistant cook refused to work. Now only the 18 Dalit children eat here," he said. As a compromise solution, Chaluvaraju even promised that the head cook would only supervise the cooking, but the upper-caste-dominated SDMC was adamant.

"Today the government says that you must eat food cooked by a Dalit. Tomorrow they will ask what is wrong with a Dalit marrying an upper-caste person. We must curb this at the initial stage," K. Devarajan, an SDMC member, said, justifying the boycott. "We have preserved our caste traditions for hundreds of years. Why should we break it now?" he asked.

In some schools, resourceful school administrations have successfully negotiated anti-Dalit caste sentiments without actually confronting them. Mahesh, the Headmaster of the Government Higher Primary School in Emmiggere, has asked Sowbhagya, the assistant cook in his school who is a Dalit, not to participate in the actual cooking. She cleans and washes the rice, washes the empty vessels, and does other odd jobs, but does not touch the food vessels. "If she had been involved in the cooking, there would have been problems," he said. "Our teachers have assured the village that there will be no caste contamination," he added.

This is precisely how the Headmaster of the school in Thoreshettahalli is also dealing with the problem. "We have told the upper-caste people in the village that the head cook will only supervise the cooking," he said. K.C. Gowramma, the head cook, is more than willing to go along. "I'll do anything they ask me," she told Frontline. "My own children study in this school."

"The bisi oota scheme can also be used as a way of confronting and eliminating caste discrimination," said T.H. Giridhar, a member of the SDMC in Thorashettahalli. "To the extent that caste and the practice of untouchability have been exposed by the new scheme, they have also been weakened," he added. A public campaign of education against caste discrimination, if made part of the mid-day meal programme, may offer the only assurance of making the programme fully effective.

Source: Frontline, August 01, 2003

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