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Pupils refuse Dalit-cooked meals

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By G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
  • Published 20.12.11
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Hyderabad, Dec. 19: Several upper-caste children have allegedly refused midday meals prepared by Dalit cooks in an Andhra school, sparking fears that one of UPA’s key welfare schemes could be turning into a platform to perpetuate caste prejudices.

The authorities of the Zilla Parishad School at Sundaragiri in Karimnagar — slain Maoist leader Kishan’s home district — have alleged that the children turning down the food are being goaded by their elders, including some village heads.

“Initially, the children complained that the quality of the food was poor. Now, they have raised the bogie of Dalit women cooks,” the headmaster said on the condition of anonymity.

Food isn’t the only problem. Dalits have been banned from social ceremonies in Sundaragiri for years.

In school, the bias has shown up elsewhere, too. “Upper-caste children are reluctant to sit with Dalit students on the same desks and stand in line for prayers with them,” said another teacher.

Attempts to end the bias in the meal scheme — aimed at reducing dropouts and preventing child labour by getting kids to school — have not made any headway.

“No matter how much we tried to convince the schoolchildren, they didn’t listen to us and agree to eat. The village elders have been advocating untouchability and provoking their children,” said Pavani, the local education officer.

The team of cooks, too, expressed surprise at the attitude of the children. “We have been doing our job well. We take all precautions to ensure our children do not fall sick. We also want them to relish the food,” said A. Mallavva, who leads the team of cooks from Chaitanya, a self-help group.

On Friday, officials conducted an inquiry and ensured that all 140 of 166 students who had come to the school that day ate the meal.

“We cannot file a case because the children are minors. We cannot take action against their parents either as it is difficult to prove that they are asking their children not to have the food for caste-related reasons,” said Tirumalai, the area’s deputy superintendent of police.

Caste bias, untouchability and superstitions are not uncommon in the area, once a preserve of feudal chiefs. Such practices were believed to have been partly responsible for the rise of Naxalites in the backward districts of the Karimnagar region, leading to the exodus of landlords.

Officials said nearly a quarter of the 11,000 villages in the region are still blighted by such prejudices.

In one remote village of Karimnagar, residents have been living out of their homes at nights for the past three months as they believe evil spirits had occupied the hamlet and will leave only after the Sankranti festival (January 14).