Politics in the Unusual Sites

  • March 23, 2024

From Keral to Uttar Pradesh, from Punjab to Bihar, women “social workers” are getting organised and raising their voices so high that even the congenitally deaf ruling powers have been paying some attention to the demands and issues.


By Kumar Rana

Groundxero | March 23, 2024


(Transcript of a keynote address given at the Annual Seminar of the Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, on 19 March 2024.)


I am grateful to the organisers of the Annual seminar of the Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, for inviting me to this very important meeting. It’s an honour for me to be asked to deliver the keynote address of the seminar; at the same time, I am really worried about whether I am the right person for the specific job. Talking about politics is not something new for us Bengalis – we inherit it. Nevertheless, our usual expertise comes to little help, especially when one is to talk about the subject of discussion today, namely Unusual Sites of Politics. So, at the end of my talk, I must warn you, that the audience may find my accepting the invitation as a ridiculously foolish act clad in the garb of bravery, and forgive me for causing your disappointment. 


Having admitted that I know little about the subject, I must repeat my gratitude to the organisers for considering me for the job for it has offered me to explore the idea with the help of recollecting some of the politico-social currents in present-day society, particularly in West Bengal. These currents, I will argue, are unusual in many senses. Still, the most important unusualness of these lies in that despite being naturally and essentially political– political even in the traditional understanding – they are seldom reported in the media, analysed in the academic arena, and recognised in the political domain. In other words, the sections which Ashok Rudra largely bracketed as intelligentsia, and which form part of the ruling class, appear selectively blind to these currents. Let us illustrate the point with an example. 


Responding to a Writ Petition (No. 196 of 2001) filed by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan (on 28 November 2001), the Supreme Court of India ordered the Union and all State Governments to serve all the students of government and government-aided primary schools hot cooked mid-day meals. After usual and much dilly-dallying, governments were forced to implement the scheme. Though the mid-day meal itself was unusual, to save time, I should not go into the details of it. But it is important to mention here that the hot cooked mid-day meal programme was implemented in Tamilnadu for many years, and this offered and still offers a lot of lessons for taking note of unusual politics. Indeed, how children’s nutrition in particular, and food in general have become an integral part of Tamilnadu politics is a crucially important subject of politico-academic inquiry.


Now, I must turn to our case in hand – the making of the invisible visible. It takes us to a quick recollection of the process of implementation of the Supreme Court Order on the Mid-day Meal scheme in West Bengal. That the programme faced huge resistance from the intelligentsia showed how insignificantly they perceived child nutrition and school education on one hand and the issues of social stratification in line of caste, gender, and other marginal identities. The resistance to the Mid-day Meal scheme was shaped by the complex constituency of the children: the majority of them belonged to low-income households, who again belonged to low social strata of the society, namely the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Muslims. Among them, the girls were especially vulnerable. The Mid-day Meal programme enabling them to attend school was a major social leap forward. Here the politics of unusual won a battle, although there were – and still are – many battles ahead in the path of equity and justice in the delivery of school education, which formed a major part of human capabilities and thus social emancipation. One such battle was concerned with the very design of the programme, which itself was unjust. The unjustness involved two aspects: one, per child monetary allocation for the programme, which was abysmally low. When it started in 2003, it was only Re 1, which has by now though raised by five times or so, but still very inadequate. A calculation comparing the allocation with the market price of the ingredients to prepare the meals showed that the budget was at least 50 per cent shorter than what was required to serve a decent meal. 


Although schools somehow managed to run the programme by using the scale, the second aspect of the unjustness of the programme continued. It was the awfully low remuneration paid to the women who were responsible for cooking and serving the food. Firstly, the government has not recognized the cooks as workers. In a written reply to a question the Minister of State of the MHRD, Annapurna Devi informed the Rajya Sabha that the “cook-cum-helpers (CCHs) … are honorary workers who have come forward for rendering social services”, and  “[i}n recognition of their services, the CCHs are paid Rs 1,000 per month as honorarium”; that too “for 10 months in a year.”  The honorarium is calculated on slabs – one cook per 25 children, two for 26-100, three for 101-200, and so on. State governments add some money to the Union government’s allocation. While some states like Kerala and Tamilnadu add substantially – 10 to 15 times – to the union allocation, in most of the states it is only Rs 500. According to this arrangement, up till last month per cook monthly honorarium in West Bengal was Rs 1,500. It is only in March 2024, that the Chief Minister of the state has announced a hike of Rs 500. I must mention here that, in West Bengal, instead of employing individual cooks, the responsibility is given to self-help groups. So, in most schools, the number of women engaged in the job is much higher than the allotted number, and the per-women per-day income never goes beyond Rs 5 or so. Two days ago, we visited a high school in Birbhum where seventeen self-help groups, with ten members in each, have been involved in the cooking, and therefore each group has to wait for at least a year and a half for their turn. Now, even if there was only one woman per 25 children, the honorarium paid per day is abysmally lower than the state-declared minimum wage.


It was surprising that political parties, traditional workers’ unions, and even women’s organisations had seldom recognized and spoken against the injustice thrust upon the Mid-day Meal cooks. Experiences of the Mid-day Meals activists who approached different agencies with some power to change the arrangement were appalling: given the situation of unemployment should not we all be content with the fact that the MDM cooks are earning at least some money, they asked. Almost all studies carried out on the implementation of the programme voiced the MDM workers’ discontent on the meagreness of the honorarium, but to no effect. Rather, often the predicament of the women working for a paltry amount was added by the irregularity of payment and unnecessary hassles of renewal of employment. The answer to the question, as to why despite low wages against back-breaking work the women taking up the job of cooking was stunning: most women replied, we are getting at least some money with which we can pay the fees of the private tutors of our children or the cost of medical treatment. Alas, our eyesight is so blurred with the gift of class division that we cannot even see as simple a thing as the double onslaught on the most vulnerable sections of society: their children are denied equitable education and are forced to pay for something which they naturally deserve to receive free; similarly, the vast majority of the poor in the society is forced to pay for their medical treatment which they were to receive without having to pay for it. Ironically, the penalty of denial of education and health is being imposed upon the poor women who have no other way but to work for pittance to compensate for the loss owing to state failure.


It is in this context that some of the women started raising their voices, and within a short span of time their voices started to snowball.  It started during the nationwide lockdown in 2021, when the cooked Mid-day Meal programme was stopped as schools were closed. Women lost their employment, no matter how much they earned from it. Earnings of other household members stopped. A social organisation called Santipur Jana Udyog helped organise the women in Santipur block of Nadia. The organising efforts spread quickly in several blocks of Nadia and North 24 Parganas, and they formed an association called Association of Mid-Day Meals Assistant, AMMA in abbreviation. By the middle of 2022, AMMA gained such strength as to organise several protests at the block and district levels in the two districts. AMMA’s demands were two-pronged: while one was concerned with their remuneration and job security, the other was to improve the quality of the food served to the children. Indeed, when in 2023 they organised a demonstration in Kolkata, the demand that was listed at the top was to increase allocation for MDM in such a way that children could be served a decent meal with adequate nutritional value.


Not that AMMA was the first ever organisation of the MDM workers – some of the trade unions affiliated with political parties formed their Mid-day Meals wings, but until 2023 their activities were limited to some perfunctory meetings. AMMA’s demonstrations sounded a bell among these party leaders, who saw some potential in the MDM workers’ movement. Finally, a joint platform of six unions was built up, and a series of activities were taken up. The activities involved a state-level convention in Kolkata, which was attended by more than one thousand delegates, organising demonstrations in Kolkata, submitting demand-charters to the Chief Minister, and so on. 


Precisely, before the formation of AMMA, the MDM workers’ existence was not recognized in usual politics. As mentioned above, although there were some unions, their role was merely ritualistic. Even while talking with the journalists, a trade union leader was heard to confound the Mid-day Meal workers with the ICDS workers – workers of two distinct programmes. The difference that AMMA’s formation made was distinctively visible in the joint convention and demonstrations, some of which I had had the opportunity to attend and see from close. While other unions were led and represented by trade union leaders who were not Mid-day Meal workers, AMMA was led and represented by leaders of their own who were elected through conferences. Of course, there were some organising catalysts from outside the MDM community, but AMMA members’ leadership was conspicuous. For example, at a demonstration in Kolkata, a trade union leader tried to replace the AMMA member who was holding the banner of the demonstration at the front of the rally, by saying, “Hey, what are you doing here; go to the back of the rally.” The AMMA member replied with a counter question, “Why”? “I am the leader – netritwa. And you are a worker, so I will be in the front, so move back”, commanded the leader. “I am also the leader – amio netritwa – and there is no reason why I should not be in the front ”, the MDM worker replied stubbornly. The stubbornness injured the honour of the trade union leader to some extent, but it angered the state to a great deal – some of the activists helping to organise AMMA have consistently been harassed by the police, and the women members were regularly threatened by local politicians and grass-root level bureaucrats.


However, it was the policies and practices of usual politics that, perhaps as an unintended consequence, resulted at least partly in the birth of such a political process in a site, which so far remained unusual for politics. During the lockdown, the neglect of the Mid-day Meal workers became even more intense – during the normal years, their existence was recognized in the form of honorarium paid to them, however nominal the amount may be, but during the lockdown, their names did not appear even in the payment registers. If the state policy of deliberately forgetting the hapless Mid-day Meal workers played a role in agonising the women severely, another state policy – I have reason to assume, although it is yet to be proven scientifically – that had had some enabling effect on the women, the programme was Lakshmir Bhandar, a direct cash transfer scheme for the women. Many MDM workers, who had no other income than the MDM remuneration, which again was paltry and irregular, perhaps for the first time had some money of their own, part of which they could spend on assembling for demonstrations and meetings. 


Whatever the case, politics in a site that remained unnoticed, unrecognised, and thus unusual, has suddenly come to the fore to make it a usual site for politics, in other words, to appropriate it in. The Chief Minister’s announcement of increasing the honorarium of MDM workers is one of the smartest moves to convert the unusual to usual. It is perhaps no more the job of politicians of usual sites to recognize human beings, but they cannot but recognize the numbers. A number that contains 2.5 lakh individuals, especially when they are organised in self-help groups, is very important for usual politics. It is not surprising that the Chief Minister’s announcement of an increase in remuneration also included the ICDS and ASHA workers, who number another 2.7 lakh women. Usual politics cannot let a tremendous stream of potential change go unattended: the change involves a qualitative change, especially in rural areas, where women are coming up as a substantial stream of working-class – owing to huge outmigration of the menfolk, particularly young males – and in some regards, they have come up as the natural leaders of the poorer section, replacing the primary teachers, the traditional natural leaders. I take this as a crucially important change in present-day West Bengal, however, I will not be able to discuss this at length – because of time and also because of comprehensive evidence. Nevertheless, what was surprising was the blindness of the usual opposition to the ruling power, especially the left, in recognizing such an emerging current in politics.


What are the detailed and nuanced connections that are giving rise to such politics of unusual sites, are yet to be understood comprehensively. Barring a few researches carried out, particularly in Tamilnadu, we are yet to receive academic help to see the picture more clearly.


Yet, the indications are clear – when politics in usual sites are suffering from imaginative anaemia, politics in unusual sites are seen to be coming up – of course with varying degrees – across the country. At the all-India level, the number of grass-root level “social workers” is about one crore – social workers are invariably women, as they are invariably the runners of the kitchen, according to the honourable Prime Minister’s mann-ki-baat. “Our daughters would be able to come out of homes and kitchens and contribute extensively in nation building only when the problems related to home and kitchen were solved first”, and thus he boasted to have given them cooking gas connections in their kitchen – it was however not his business to be disturbed if the women could not refill the cylinder owing to lack of household income. Jokes apart, the CM and PM are both very smart to address the women and appropriating them in the sites of usual politics. Yet, as the news of protests, demonstrations, and organisations of the so-called social workers are managing to reach the people – there are smart moves by the media to keep the news blocked from reaching the common people – one can see the indications of a different kind of politics, led by smarter organisers, namely the commoners. From Keral to Uttar Pradesh, from Punjab to Bihar, women “social workers” are getting organised and raising their voices so high that even the congenitally deaf ruling powers have been paying some attention to the demands and issues. It’s only one illustration of unusual politics – several currents are flowing down the countries’ habitations. The builders of politics of unusual, the commoners, have the potential to outsmart the usual politicians and their allies, the intelligentsia.


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