Caste is a stronger divider in this picturesque Himachali village of Saraha than the river which cuts across dividing it into two halves. The west bank hosts mostly Dalit houses and the upper castes have occupied the east bank.
With a population of more than 500 people, a number considered huge in the region, Saraha in Chaupal Tehsil has two Anganwadi Kendras. But more than serving its main purpose of catering to a large number of children the two Anganwadis have come to serve a second purpose. Keeping up with the spirit of casteism that runs the village, one Anganwadi attends children of Dalit families and the other has mostly children who hail from upper caste homes enrolled.
The worker and helper at one of the Anganwadis are both Dalits and the other Anganwadi has two upper caste women working. No amount of caste blindness would justify the inability to figure out which Anganwadi the upper caste families send their children to.
Then there is a primary school in the village, run by the state government where the kids from all castes finally get to sit together. One would expect that caste would not divide the tiny tots here. But then this would be our failure to understand the clench and viciousness of the Brahmanical caste system.
The cooks and helpers who prepare the Mid-Day Meal are both upper castes. This could easily be mistaken as chance at play but it is actually a discreet yet strong institutionalized mechanism that ensures that Dalit women and men are not hired as cooks and helpers.
“The panchayat pradhan and the headmaster of the school and other members of the School Management Committee don’t select Dalit cooks. Parents are not going to accept lower castes feeding their children food” confesses a reluctant Mathura Kimta, a teacher at the Government Primary School, Saraha and an upper caste woman herself. The admission wouldn’t have come easy if she wasn’t well aware that this writer hails from an upper caste family as well.
Inadequate representation of Dalits despite their large presence
This tale of discrimination and exclusion is not a one off case but a state-wide phenomenon in Himachal Pradesh. According to the latest data maintained by Department of School Education and Literacy, out of the 21, 945 cooks and helpers working under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme only 16 percent of them are from Schedule Caste (read Dalits). This is an appalling figure in a state where Dalits make one-fourth of the population. In fact at 25.2 percent, Himachal Pradesh has the second highest population of Dalits in the country.
This disparity in the representation of Dalits is despite the state government being notified to give preference to Dalits and other weaker communities. In many communications made to state Education Department over the years the Ministry of Human Resource Development had said, “State Govt. may give priority to weaker section of the society like women, SC/ST, OBC, minorities in engaging the cook-cum-helpers”.
“Others” occupy 10.7 percent posts and 1771 members of Scheduled Tribes work as cooks putting their total share at 8 percent. Only meager 21 women and 4 men from “Minorities” are hired as cooks making them amongst the most underrepresented section with Dalits. But then which weaker section was given preference by the State?
Students at Government High School, Jarai. Photo Courtesy : Priyanka Ishwari
Upper castes have grabbed the highest chunk
While cooking food and feeding children has been traditionally considered a women’s job it is no surprise that woman have outnumbered men with 82.6 percent share in the total hirings made. But what is interesting is that women from upper castes have the highest chunk of work with them. Amongst the total 18127 women cooks, 63.66 percent are from “General” category read Upper caste. Upper caste men and women together make up a staggering amount of 64.3 percent of cooks and helpers employed under the Scheme.
The little sincerity with which the state authorities, regional administration and local decision makers have evidently worked on adequate representation of Dalits is coupled with the staunch caste bias Savarnas hold against the historically oppressed lower castes.
“When we were in school and before the Mid-Day meal scheme started functioning fully in the state students brought tiffins with them for lunch. In case the tiffin was touched by a classmate from a lower-caste, we would not eat the food and throw it away” recalls Bandana Sharma, who now works as an Anganwadi Worker.
Her story finds echo in the words of another Brahmin woman Subhadhra Sharma, “Children are not going to eat at the hands of a Dalit. Given the situation how will a Dalit cook be hired”? Subhadra is a teacher at the Government Primary School in village Jarai in Theog Tehsil. This school shares its compound with the state run high school. There are hence two kitchens where food is prepared under the school meal programme. None of the kitchens have ever had a Dalit cook walk into them.
Positive discrimination needed for the oppressed
Does it then really come as a surprise that during the recent telecast of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Pariksha Par Charcha’, Dalit students of a government high school in Kullu were made to sit separately outside?
Caste discrimination prospers when state mechanisms sanctions these regressive biases by failing to provide all the citizens equal opportunities for adequate social representation. And ensuring equal opportunities translates into positive discrimination in favour of historically oppressed sections.
Even though cooks working under the Mid-Day Meal schemes work for the government they are not considered regular employees enjoying no benefits and are not hired by means of reservation. If social forces are let loose, forget preference Dalits representation would not even be in proportion to their corresponding share in population, as demonstrated by the above figures.