Saturday, October 02, 2004

Caste bias on school mid-day meal menu

Manjeet Sehgal Warrior
MANDI

The Himachal Pradesh government has implemented mid-day meals in the 10,618 government-run primary schools of the state from September 1. However, the scheme has already run into rough weather. The reason: the sharp caste divide, especially in the rural areas.

Out of the roughly 7 lakh students in the schools, 1,93,689 are dalits. Several district headquarters have received complaints of dalit students being ostracised. In many schools of Bainchi panchayat in Kullu district, dalit students are allegedly asked to sit 2-3 metres away from upper caste students and not allowed to touch the utensils of the school. They have also been asked to bring their own plates.

“The district administration should intervene and should stop the victimisation of the students by the people of upper caste. We’ll inform the education minister by way of a memorandum shortly,” says Nirat Ram Rakha, district president of the Dalit Sahitya Academy, Kullu. District Deputy Commissioner RD Nazeem confirms that he is aware of the caste divide in the district but denies victimisation of dalit students. “Revenue and Development officers clandestinely visited the schools (concerned) and did not notice any treatment which amounts to victimisation of dalit students. We’ll leave no stone unturned to implement the scheme. Complaints in future will be examined minutely and the guilty will be punished,” he says.

The Mandi district administration has also received similar complaints. In one of the incidents, in the Gohar block of the district, food for dalit students was cooked in separate utensils. In a written complaint to Ali Raja Rizvi, the Deputy Commissioner Mandi, eight residents of the block said that if the Constitution permits separate teaching arrangements for dalit children, they would happily admit their children in dalit schools. If upper caste people were not eating food cooked by dalits, they would ask their children not to eat food cooked by upper caste people. “The Sub Divisional Magistrate of Gohar has been asked to inquire into the matter,” says Rizvi.

In other areas, it is the upper caste students who refuse to eat meals cooked by dalit aanganwadi workers. The government primary school in Khudla, 50 km from Mandi, is one such example. There are 72 students, of which 13 Brahmin students stopped eating the mid-day meal on September 6, when cooking duties were entrusted to dalit aanganwadi workers. The Brahmin students refuse to comment when asked why they are not eating. Sunita Devi, a teacher, says, “The Brahmin students were asked by their parents not to eat meals cooked by dalit workers. The matter has been reported to higher authorities.” The headmaster, Brij Lal Rana, has failed to pacify the Brahmin families. “The students are not eating meals despite requests made by the school staff to their parents. We’ve reported the matter to the block education office,” says Rana. “Only doomsday can compel us to accept food from lower caste people. We cannot give up old customs,” says a Khudla villager who does not want to be named. Interestingly, Rajput students have no objections to the meals.

Many teachers look at the mid-day scheme as one more headache. “The state government has already transferred thousands of school teachers under its rationalisation policy. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (ssa) has further aggravated the situation. Teachers are being compelled to get training under ssa and schools go without teachers for weeks together. The mid-day meal scheme takes up three hours daily and the exams are looming large. We’re in a piquant situation. We cannot speak against government,” says a government schoolteacher, on the condition of anonymity.

The state government is confident. “These are teething problems and will be taken care of soon.” says state Public Health Minister Thakur Kaul Singh, who is from Mandi.

Source: Tehelka, October 02, 2004

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