Dehradun: A Dalit woman who was removed as ‘bhojan mata (midday meal cook)’ from a government school in Uttarakhand after upper caste students allegedly refused to eat food cooked by her, is likely to be reinstated.
Champawat district education officials have, however, claimed that while Sunita Devi was eligible for the post, she was not removed due to a boycott by upper caste students, but because her appointment was not according to norms.
R.S. Purohit, chief education officer (CEO) of Champawat, said school principal Prem Singh had brought in Devi, overruling the first appointment of an upper caste cook, Puspha Bhatt, who the principal himself had hired. Bhatt was not issued an appointment letter and the entire selection process was quashed by the principal, claimed Purohit.
“Today she stands expelled but Sunita Devi is likely to be re-employed as she is the lone applicant to qualify among all others. However, a fresh selection process will start after the ongoing inquiry ordered in the matter is over,” the CEO said.
The inquiry is being conducted by Champawat’s Deputy Education Officer (DEO) Anshul Bisht.
Champawat District magistrate Vineet Kumar Tomar did not respond to ThePrint’s calls for comment.
Local MLA Kailash Chand Ghatori said Devi’s was not a case of “caste-based expulsion”, but her removal was “not acceptable”.
“I will inquire why she was removed. This is not acceptable. It’s more than what is being made out… I will ensure that she gets reinstated,” said the BJP legislator.
On 13 December, Devi was hired by Sukhidhang Government Inter College in Champawat district to cook midday meals for classes 6 to 8.
The next day, some upper caste students allegedly refused a meal cooked by her. The incident “resulted in pressure from the School Management Committee (SMC) — constituting parents and school staff — to remove her from work”, said Purohit.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sunita Devi said a group of villages had been opposing her appointment as ‘bhojan mata’ in the school.
“On 14 December, around 25-26 parents came to the school and started yelling at the teachers and kitchen staff. They said their children were forced to consume a meal prepared by a lower caste woman. They were opposed by the school teachers, who are also from the upper caste, but the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) members threatened to remove me from the job,” she added.
Devi said she worked at the school for a week and took three days’ leave on 21 December, but was not allowed to return after that.
“I am worried now as villagers have stopped talking to me. They make comments against my caste and family when we pass by. I have two kids studying in the same school and husband who is a labourer with no assured means of earning,” she added.
Row over appointment
Every higher secondary school in Uttarakhand has two parent associations — the SMC for classes 6 to 8, and the PTA for higher classes.
The appointment of ‘bhojan mata’ is done by the school principal in consultation with the SMC president as the midday meal scheme is meant for classes 6 to 8, said Purohit.
“However, the Sukhidhang school principal first appointed an upper caste woman, Pushpa Bhatt, in early December in consultation with the PTA following a notification issued by the school earlier,” he added. “Bhatt was selected from among six candidates who had applied for the job. According to the norms, the principal should have consulted the SMC rather than PTA for appointing the bhojan mata.”
The CEO further said principal Prem Singh later quashed Bhatt’s appointment and issued another notification with new dates for selection of the school cook.
“This time, Sunita Devi applied as a new candidate and she was selected and employed without any formal appointment letter. Even Bhatt was not given any formal employment letter. Once a name was finalised by the SMC, it was to be ratified by the DEO, but this was not done in either of the two cases,” he added.
Purohit said it was the “principal’s style of functioning that had angered the upper caste students’ parents, who resorted to asking their children to boycott the meal prepared by Sunita Devi”.
“They protested against the selection process, not the cook. PTA members asked why the principal called for fresh applications when Bhatt had already been appointed,” he added.
According to the CEO, priority for appointment of midday meal cooks is given in the order of SC, ST, OBC and general category candidates, subject to the condition that at least one child of the applicant studies in class 6, 7 or 8.
“An inquiry is on and we will soon invite fresh applications for appointing a new cook. Going by the norms, Sunita Devi will be appointed again in all likelihood. However, this time it will be done according to procedure, unlike in the past,” said Purohit.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)