Untouchability smear on mid-day meal scheme in UP

The children belonging to the upper castes have been refusing to eat the mid-day meals prepared by the cooks, if they are from dalit community or other lower castes, in the primary schools in the state. Of course, they had done so after their parents asked them to do so.

It all started a few days back when the students belonging to the upper castes had refused to eat the food cooked by a dalit woman at a primary school in the newly created Ramabai Nagar district.

“There were 137 upper caste students in the school and all of them refused to eat the food,” education department officials said. The principal of the school Maan Singh was suspended after it was found that the problem was a few days old but the principal, instead of contacting the senior officials and trying to resolve the matter, tried to cover it up.

That it was not an isolated incident became evident soon when upper caste students at many primary schools in several districts also refused to eat the meal prepared by dalit cooks. At least 22 districts witnessed protests by the parents of the upper caste students and at many places they even stopped sending their children to schools.

As the issue threatened to snowball into a major controversy, the Mayawati government, which says that it is committed towards the welfare of the dalits, instead of resolving the matter, gave in to the pressure. The government withdrew an earlier order, which provided that only SCs, STs and OBCs could be appointed as cooks in the primary schools. The new GO says that preference would be given to them.

Electoral prospects

Political observers say that the government had buckled under pressure to prevent alienation of the upper castes with an eye on the next Assembly elections due in two years’ time. An upper caste backlash could adversely affect the electoral prospects of the BSP, which romped home in the 2007 Assembly polls riding on its social engineering (bringing together brahmins and dalits).

The National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education, also known as mid-day meal programme, is a centrally-sponsored scheme and was launched on Aug 15, 1995. The main objective was to improve the nutritional status of the food being given to the children and promote universalisation of primary education and to see it falling a victim of untouchability was utterly unfortunate, according to social activists.

Social activists warn that such incidents could pour cold water on the ambitious Right to Education (RTE) Act if corrective measures were not taken immediately. BJP leader and writer Hriday Narain Dixit  holds the parents responsible for this. “The children did what they were taught by their parents. The act of the parents will only strengthen the evil of untouchability and inculcate the feeling of hatred among the children at a tender age,” he said.

Activists say that the incidents only reflect that the caste factor was still very strong, especially in rural areas. They favoured punitive action against the guilty parents and the education department officials rather than giving in to the demands for removing the dalit cooks.

But, it appears that for the Mayawati government, winning the next elections is the top priority, even if it comes at the cost of social harmony.

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