In a country where children have been told not to eat food from a Dalit cook and people tie “caste strings” on their wrists as identification marks, a few schools in Punjab are trying to bridge the “gap”.
Just 3 kms from the India-Pakistan border in Fazilka district is the government primary school of Pacca Chishti. Here, Paramjeet Kaur, a Dalit woman who cooks the school’s mid-day meals, tied a raakhi on the wrist of head teacher Manoj Kumar.
“I don’t have a brother. My school is my family. Kumar sir is like a brother to me,” said Kaur.
The school has students from the Rai Sikh community studying along with upper caste students including from the Jat Sikh community. Their mid-day meals are all cooked by Dalits.
“There has not been a single instance where our three cooks- Bachno Bai, Gurmeet Kaur and Paramjeet Kaur- faced any problem. Children lovingly call them aunty ji and we teach them how to respect elders who cook food for them,” said Manoj.
It helps that the children of Gurmeet Kaur also study in the same school. “All teachers, cooks and children eat same food in lunch prepared by our cooks. On Diwali and Lohri, we give gifts to them and they have full right to speak in the matters of school if they have any opinion,” said Manoj.
“Being from extremely poor families, we sometimes need money for medicines or clothes. We get only Rs 1,200 as monthly salary. Then teachers give us money from their own pockets. They have never said no,” said Bachno Bai.
Less than a kilometre from the Indo-Pak border is Dona Nanaka village. Head teacher Lovejeet Grewal of Government Primary School, Dona Nanaka was honoured by Punjab education minister on Teachers’ Day last year for developing this school.
Grewal said that untouchability was never allowed to enter his school premises. Two of the four Dalit cooks in the school are part of the school management committee.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Veero Bai and Soma Bai, who are members of the committee as well as mid-day meal cooks said, “Caste or creed has never entered our school. All the students are like our own children. The quality of food is checked by teachers before we serve it to children. Whenever some important decision has to be taken, we are asked for suggestions. There is nothing more that we need than respect.”
In Mansa district of Punjab, where literacy is the lowest in the state (Census 2011), Ralli village has set an example in how people from marginalised community should be treated.
There are 206 students in this school and an almost equal number of Dalit and upper caste students. The school has a tradition of calling its three Dalit mid-day meal cooks on stage during school functions when students are honoured for academic and co-curricular activities.
Amarjeet Singh Chahal, the head teacher of the school, says that it is a way to thank the people who cook food for children.
“Our cooks stand with the village sarpanch and other dignitaries when the students are honoured on stage. Also, we have taught children to thank them every day for their service. Neither students nor cooks have ever mentioned what their caste is or from which community they are. They are part of our school family. With pay as low as Rs 1,200, they can easily get better-paying jobs but it is because of the personal relationship that they have developed with the school that they continue here.”
“We never heard of any school which calls its cooks or sweepers on stage when kids are honoured. None of the students misbehaved with us ever,” said Melo Kaur, who cooks for the school.
The cooks in these schools not only prepare food but also help in new admissions.
“They know the villagers well. Whenever they come to know of a child ready for schooling, they inform us and we take them along to convince the parents to send their child to school,” said Grewal.