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Midday meal pay-hike wait

July 18: The five-year wait for an increase in the pay of nearly 28 lakh cooks-cum-helpers who prepare the meals to feed 11 crore schoolchildren every day is set to continue.

The Union cabinet last week deferred a proposal initiated during the UPA regime to increase the monthly honorarium from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 for these workers, 40 per cent of whom are Dalits and tribals. The sum has not been revised for five years.

The proposal also included provisions for raising the cooking cost, transport assistance and monitoring allowance. The cabinet committee on economic affairs on July 9 took up the matter but did not take a decision. It has been deferred, sources said.

The HRD ministry had initiated the proposal in January and the expenditure finance committee under the finance ministry had approved it on January 30.

The cooks-cum-helpers spend about four to five hours in the school every day. Their responsibilities include preparing the meals that include rice/roti, dal and sabzi, serving the children and cleaning the utensils and cooking devices.

Midday meals are served in 13.5 lakh aided and government schools across the country. The government spends about Rs 15,000 crore a year on this scheme, which is described as a successful programme to arrest the dropout rate and enhance children's nutrition.

The work of the cooks-cum-helpers is of immense responsibility since they have to ensure proper hygiene and safety in preparation of food. But Anganwadi workers get paid more than thrice the sum they get — Rs 3,500 per month. Even workers under national rural job scheme get between Rs 122 and Rs 190 a day.

Of the 28 lakh cooks-cum-helpers, 82 per cent are women, mostly single and widows.

A recent report by an expert committee on poverty headed by C. Rangarajan has said a family of five persons is expected to spend Rs 4,860 a month on food and non-food items in rural areas and Rs 7,035 in urban areas to remain above the poverty line. Considering this recommendation, the family of a midday meal worker would figure in the poverty list if they do not have any additional income.

The cooking cost per meal at primary level and upper primary level is Rs 3.59 and Rs 5.38 respectively. The finance committee had suggested an increase through inflation indexing. But this will also have to wait.

The finance ministry had only recently allowed enhancing the cooking cost by 7.5 per cent with effect from July this year.