In her election speeches until the UP campaign closed Monday, BSP chief Mayawati often brought up the quality of midday meals served at government schools. It was an issue that was, on the other hand, practically absent from the election pitch of the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. To find out why it was turning into an issue exclusive to Mayawati, The Indian Express visited five schools, each in a different district, where midday meals are being served to attract children to school. A clue came from the communities that these children represent. In four primary schools, 95 per cent of the students belong to OBCs and SCs, who are entitled to reservation. In the fifth school, which is upper primary, the entire composition of students is Muslim, OBC and SC.
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Travelling through Gorakhpur, Sant Kabir Nagar, Azamgarh, Ghazipur and Varanasi, The Indian Express found that “general category” students (excluding Muslims, who are being counted separately) account for only 14 out of 611 students (2 per cent) in the four primary schools. In contrast are 265 SC students (43 per cent) and 317 of the OBCs (52 per cent), besides five ST students in one school. Most of the children belong to underprivileged families. Teachers say their respective areas also have several public schools and any family who can afford the Rs 100 fee prefers to send its children there.
At the government schools, children are provided free uniforms and free textbooks, besides the free meal just to encourage enrolment. At Digha in Sant Kabir Nagar, a primary school being run since 1964 has 184 children of whom 176 are SCs or OBCs; the other eight include six Muslims. However, say principal in-charge Renu, “only 70-80 per cent of the students usually attend school”. The cooks appointed in these schools are paid Rs 1,000 a month for a nearly four-hours-a-day job. This, too, is paid in instalments — two or three times a year. “Six months’ salary was paid in November, since then we have been waiting,” say Singhara and Shreemati, the cooks at the Digha school. “Government officials must understand we should be paid regularly.” At Madhuban primary school in Azamgarh, cooks Suman Devi, Honsila and Shubhawati have the same complaint. In all these schools, teachers say money comes only twice or thrice a year and sometimes teachers have pay the cooks from their own pockets.
The Madhuban school has 160 students, of whom as many as 151 belong to SC communities; only three belong to the general category. Says Saroj Gupta, one of the three teachers in the school, “A lot of local Dalits are struggling against acute poverty and many parents send their wards on an empty stomach, knowing they will get a meal here in school.” He says OBC communities whose children come to these schools are mostly among the most backward communities, such as Rajbhar. The upper primary school The Indian Express visited is on the outskirts of Gorakhpur. It has 31 students, all of them either SC, OBC or Muslim. When The Indian Express visited the school, nine students were present. Says Zareen, principal in-charge, “It is big challenge. If we force them to attend, their guardians come and say they don’t want to send their children to school. To ensure they stay enrolled, we don’t pressure them.”
In August 2015, concerns over the quality of education in such schools had led to Allahabad High Court directing that children of government officials must be sent to government schools. “None of the parties be it BSP, BJP, SP or Congress have any agenda for reforms in primary education,” says Baleshwar Tyagi , who was basic education minister during 1996-2002. “Every party is counting caste and community and none is concerned about primary education. In these schools only deprived sections send their children and everything is free except the quality of education. Mayawati did not do anything to improve these schools as chief minister.”
On the state government websites for the Education for All project and the midday meal scheme, there is no breakup given for students in government-run schools. Government officials say that the majority of children studying in government schools are of the reserved categories and only a handful of them are of the general category. As in the primary school at Amenda in Ghazipur, where 312 out of 141 students belong to reservation-entitled communities, with the other nine including four Muslim students. Says Deenanath Yadav, principal of the school, “Parents who can afford even Rs 100 fee for a public school will not send their wards to these schools..”