Every day Radhamma takes out a diary she is required to maintain as part of the mid-day meal scheme in government schools in Karnataka and writes four words, “No one ate today.” Every day for the past five months.
Radhamma is a Scheduled Caste, and the condition that she not make food is the only way she can retain her job of head cook at the Government Higher Primary School in Kagganahalli village in Kolar district of Karnataka. In January 2014, there were 118 students at the school, from Classes I to VIII. Since her appointment in February 2014, 100 have left. The remaining 18 continue on the condition, laid down by their parents, that Radhamma not make the mid-may meal.
It earns her Rs 1,700 per month, but every paisa counts for her family of seven persons belonging to the Adi Karnataka caste.
Kagganahalli is a small village with 101 families and a population of 452. As many as 40 per cent of the villagers belong to Scheduled Tribe communities while 18.14 per cent are Dalits like Radhamma. The OBC Kurubas and landholding Vokkaligas make up the rest.
Mulbagal Block Education Officer N Devaraj says they have decided to stop the mid-day meal scheme in the village. “Despite the efforts of elected representatives, IAS officers and others in the region, villagers refuse to send their children to the school. We cannot understand their behaviour.”
School headmaster Y V Venkatachalapathi blames “village politics” for the situation at the school. “Its strength fell from 118 to 58 in June 2014 itself. It fell further to 18 by June 2015… Parents come to the school and demand transfer certificates. They abuse me if I try to convince them not to take their wards out.”
Most of the children who are leaving join government schools in neighbouring villages such as Vaddahalli and Nangli. As per Karnataka government rules, a school can be shut down if it has less than 10 students.
A Class IV student at the Kagganahalli government school says he has started going home for lunch now. Their parents had warned them strictly against eating the mid-day meal, he says.
When the school strength was 118, Radhamma had assistants to help her out with cooking. Now there is only her.
Radhamma also remembers that when she joined the school, around 58 students would eat meals cooked by her, but 51 of these were “forced to leave” at the end of the year by their parents. The remaining seven left this year, she says.
The 34-year-old is almost stoic about the boycott. “All the students have left due to pressure from the upper castes in the village. Nobody is willing to have food prepared by me. Even students belonging to my caste have been forced to leave the school,” she says.
The literacy rate in Kagganahalli village is 66.75 per cent, lower than the state average of 75.36 per cent.
Kagganahalli resident Channarayappa, who himself belongs to a Scheduled Tribe, says his own nephew Gunasekhara has left the village school and shifted to Vaddahhali’s. “The people of the village created problems over the appointment of the Dalit cook. The number of teachers also dwindled.” The vacancies haven’t been filled up due to the low number of students.
Babureddy, who belongs to an upper caste, justifies the mass departure from the school. “People are angry over (Radhamma’s) appointment,” he says.
M Nagabhushan, a Dalit, isn’t surprised. “Villagers have socially boycotted four families, including mine. Radhamma’s family is also on the list. A group of people announced that they would not give us water and other necessities. They have warned people of the village that they would be fined Rs 501 for every interaction they have with Dalits. I filed a case and eight persons were arrested,” he says.
The four families faced approbation for celebrating Sankranti at a place ‘allotted’ for upper castes. Radhamma’s application for the post of head cook at the school also played a role in the social boycott of her family.
C Thipanna used to head the region’s School Development and Monitoring Committee. Till 2013, he remembers, the Kagganahalli school was among the top government schools in Mulbagal taluk. “Our students were bright in studies and sports. After Radhamma was appointed the cook, the entire picture changed.”
However, Thippanna adds, he understands why this happened. “How can people tolerate a Dalit woman cooking for their children? I feel very bad for the school.”