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Meal workers lay siege to minister’s house

They demanded a written assurance from Siddhartha Bhattacharya on making their jobs permanent
Midday meal workers protest outside Assam education minister Siddhartha Bhattacharya’s residence at Ulubari in Guwahati on Tuesday

Debananda Medak   |   Guwahati   |   Published 12.11.19, 07:07 PM

The All Assam Primary and Upper Primary Midday Meal Cook and Helper Association protested in front of education minister Siddhartha Bhattacharya’s house here on Tuesday in support of their demands, including immediate removal of the NGOs engaged for preparing and distributing midday meals to primary schools of the state.

The protest came a day after midday meal workers, who have been protesting since November 1, returned to work following Dispur’s decision to temporarily put on hold the services of the recently engaged NGOs. The protests are on despite the government assuring the volunteers, who have been serving midday meals in schools since 2005, that their jobs were not at risk.

Thousands of meal workers protested from 8am till noon in front of Bhattacharya’s house. They demanded a written assurance from the minister on making their jobs permanent and protecting the rights of women workers by ensuring a minimum wage of Rs 9,600 per month.

Elementary education joint secretary Rita Choudhury received the three-point memorandum. “I have assured them that I will arrange for them to meet the authorities on Wednesday. We have called 10 representatives from the association,” she told The Telegraph.

Association adviser Trishna Nath said, “Our only condition to sit at the negotiation table is a formal announcement by the state government on immediate removal of the NGOs. We will not accept alternatives to our demands.”

She said the association would not tolerate any government attempt to privatise school kitchens. “Privatisation of school kitchens will also privatise 117,000 meal workers of the state,” she claimed.

Nath insisted on the education minister and Axom Sarba Siksha Abhiyan Mission director Samsher Singh attending the meeting. “We will not talk with other representatives,” she said.

The meal volunteers said the government’s decision had hurt their dignity and sentiment. They said the authorities cannot point out any lapse on their part in their 15 years of service in midday meal scheme. They alleged that the engagement of NGOs indicated a hidden interest of the government.

The participants said while they had joined the protest, a volunteer was preparing and serving meals in schools. “We have not forgotten our children for the protest. One of our colleagues is serving in schools. We realise our responsibility and the government should play its part,” the protesters unanimously said.

Fifteen NGOs, engaged from outside the state, had started their services to prepare and distribute meals in schools from November 1. From the very first day, the NGOs were accused of serving poor quality food, and irregular and untimely distribution of meals. The government had in October decided to engage the services of the NGOs.

On November 9, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal put the centralised kitchen services on hold and ordered a probe into the allegations.

On Sunday, Singh directed all the deputy commissioners of the districts to resume school kitchen services and suspend the centralised kitchen run by NGOs until further orders.

The meal volunteers temporarily resumed their task of preparing and distributing meals in primary schools on November 11, after a disruption of 10 days.

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