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Double stipend hope for midday-meal cooks

New Delhi, Nov. 21: Sanghamitra Sardar cooks for nearly 200 children every working day in an Odisha school but she struggles every single day to feed her two children.

A tribal widow, Sardar gets Rs 1,000 a month as honorarium — about Rs 33 a day — for her service as cook-cum-helper at Sikharpur Model Project Upper Primary School in Cuttack. That is far less than the household expenditure cut-off fixed by the government as “subsistence level of living”.

However, the struggle of Sardar and 27 lakh cook-cum-helpers preparing food under the midday meal scheme may ease a little as the Centre is planning to double the honorarium.

The HRD ministry has moved a proposal to the finance ministry, sources said. The last time the honorarium was revised was in 2009, from Rs 200 to Rs 1,000.

“I have to depend on my father to meet my expenses. If the honorarium is doubled, it will help me to some extent,” Sardar said.

Subash Chandra Satapathy, a schoolteacher, said cook-cum-helpers spent about five hours at work on schooldays. Their task includes preparing rice/roti, dal and sabzi, serving the food and cleaning utensils and cooking devices.

“It is almost full-day duty. They come to school around 10 in the morning and stay till 3pm,” Satapathy said.

The Rs 1,000 per month honorarium is less than the Rs 3,500 that anganwadi workers get a month. Even workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act get between Rs 122 and Rs 190 a day.

The role of cook-cum-helpers is important as they have to ensure that food is prepared under hygienic conditions. But they are a neglected lot. About 82 per cent of the 27 lakh cook-cum-helpers are female, mostly single women and widows. Forty-one per cent are from the SC/ST communities.

The midday meals are served in 13 lakh aided and government schools and feed over 11 crore children on schooldays. The Centre spends about Rs 15,000 crore a year on this scheme, aimed at increasing children’s attention spans, arresting dropout rates and enhancing nutrition.

Sources said the finance ministry is likely to approve the proposal that would cost the government an additional Rs 2,200 crore a year.

However, even the proposed Rs 2,000 per month honorarium is less than the minimum household expenditure cut-off fixed as subsistence level of living. A committee set up by the Planning Commission under Suresh Tendulkar had considered household expenditure on food, medicine, education etc and suggested a cut-off level.

The Planning Commission has termed it the “subsistence level of living”. The cut-off is Rs 447 per month per person in rural areas and Rs 578 per month in urban areas (both as per 2004-05 price index). If converted to the 2011 price level, persons whose daily spending is less than Rs 33.33 in cities and Rs 27.20 in villages are essentially living below the subsistence level.

T. Sundararaman, the executive director of National Health Systems, a Delhi-based NGO working on community health and social sector programmes, said the proposed hike was a “knee-jerk response” by the government ahead of elections.

“These cook-cum-helpers spend almost the whole day in the school. They deserve honorarium on a par with the MGNREGA wage rate,” he said.

He said these workers could be trained in community care and allowed to work an additional two-three hours apart from preparing food to log six hours of work a day and be paid on a par with MGNREGA rates.