BIBIPUR Primary and Upper Primary School is situated barely a kilometre from Phool Kumari Rawat’s house. However, in the nine years since she was removed unceremoniously from the school as upper caste parents objected to having a Dalit cook, she hasn’t ever “looked that way”.
“They told me not to come, and I have maintained my distance, as have my grandchildren. We want to live peacefully. It is not good to enter into tussle with bare jinan (upper castes),” says Phool Kumari, now in her 70s.
Phool Kumari held the job, which paid her Rs 60 a day, for about a month. A mother of three who lost her husband nearly 30 years ago, she never got fixed employment again. She started working as a labourer under MGNREGA and continues to do so, though even work under the scheme is drying up.
Her sons barely went to school and work as labourers like her and like their father before them. The family owns some land but it is not big enough to support the 15 members, including Phool Kumari, her sons, their wives and eight grandchildren.
The state government had appointed Phool Kumari as a cook at the Bibipur school, located 35 km from Lucknow, on an honorarium basis. After upper-caste students refused to eat the mid-day meal cooked by a Dalit, she was removed in December 2007. Her ouster made big news at the time as the Mayawati-led BSP, with its mass Dalit vote base, had just come into power. Following the controversy, the government brought in another Dalit cook to replace Phool Kumari.
But Phool Kumari wasn’t called back.
Even in Bibipur, a village of around 2,500 people, they have forgotten the incident. Prodded about her, gram pradhan Shiv Govind Singh makes some enquiries, and initially says a woman by the name of Phool Kumari Rawat died two years ago.
Among the oldest women in Bibipur, Phool Kumari says it wasn’t easy raising her sons Mahendra, Roshan and Asharfi. When her husband died, the eldest, Mahendra, was just 10-12 years old. Phool Kumari doesn’t remember the year her husband died, but recalls he had contracted high fever just a few days earlier. “We didn’t have too much money for treatment.”
She says her sons started working as labourers from a young age. “We neither had time nor money to send them to school. Our first focus was to earn money.”
Over the years, the family built a pucca house. Their prized possession is a motorcycle Asharfi got from his in-laws.
When she heard about the school job, Phool Kumari thought she would finally get a break from hard labour. “Otherwise, who would work for less than Rs 60 per day?” Plus, she could always take up other work after school, she thought.
But the row over her appointment started soon after. Phool Kumari says she doesn’t want to go into the details, that “peace is more important”. “Kya hua hoga, kisne kaha hoga, kya pata? Koi nahin janta, koi janana bhi nahin chahta (What happened, who raised it, who knows? No one knows, no one even wants to know)… It is best to leave such things alone.”
Roshan, who was in his early 30s at the time, says they don’t “want to become part of any politics again”. “We are happy the way we are. We work as labourers and are able to take care of our families.”
Told to leave, Phool Kumari returned to working in the fields, and never tried for a school cook job again. “MNREGA work sustained us. But for the past few months, even NREGA work is not coming. Payments are delayed. I take up whatever work I get and my sons are employed at construction sites. A lot of buildings are coming up here.”
Among those are swanky new Audi and Jaguar showrooms. With Lucknow expanding, the village and the Bibipur school now fall within the city limits.
Ram Kumar, principal of the primary section of the school, joined here just four years ago but knows about the Phool Kumari episode, as do the other staff members. The school has four teachers and 55 students in the primary section, and three teachers and 50 students in upper primary (till Class VII).
He no longer has to bother about problems such as what happened with Phool Kumari, Ram Kumar says. Two years ago,
after several complaints about mid-day meals, Akshay Patra was given the contract of supplying food to government
schools in Lucknow. “We needn’t worry about who is cooking, how the utensils are being cleaned. There are still
four cooks, but they work as helpers. They are paid by Akshay Patra,” says Ram Kumar.
His bigger concern, the principal says, is the falling numbers in his school. With a private school coming up next
door, student strength is down to a third —105 — since 2007.
None of Mahendra, Roshan and Asharfi’s children go to the Bibipur school, or to another government school about 4 km away. “Three of my grandchildren go to the private school. Their fathers pay Rs 80 a month for each, but education is better. They come back and eat at home,” smiles Phool Kumari.
She doesn’t want anything to do with the Bibipur school, she adds. After waiting for villagers to leave her side, she urges, with folded hands, “Dekhe rehna humar bacchon ka koi nuksan na ho (Please see to it that my children are not harmed). Since the Thakurs objected, I never went there again. Their choice. I do not know why you have come.”
Then, after thinking a while, Phool Kumari says she does have one complaint — something she hasn’t raised in nine years. “They did not pay me even for my one month of cooking. No one bothered. It was my right. But there was such a hue and cry that my neighbours recommended that I keep quiet. I agreed. But no one even asked?”