The collective conscience of the nation stands bruised after the death of more than 20 school children in the Saran district of India’s eastern state of Bihar. The children’s deaths, which resulted from eating poisoned school lunches, exposes the insensitivity of a system that has forgotten the plight of those who remain impoverished at the margins of the society.
How can one explain the presence of poisonous insecticide in food meant for children?
The whole point of serving lunch in schools is to serve nutritious food to children who often come from extremely poor families, to not only nourish them but also encourage them to study. The death of at least 23 children, who consumed food provided by their school in the village of Dharmasati Gandaman, has brought the whole scheme under question.
Images of the school featured on television show a decrepit building without basic infrastructure, in which a dirty corner is being used as a kitchen. Similarly, the hospital where the children were taken lacks basic facilities.
In sum, this tragedy exposes the poor state of affairs in Bihar, one of India’s least developed states yet which claims to have turned a new leaf under the leadership of the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Further, it shows that no matter how much things improve the region likely needs decades of sustained attention to make any meaningful improvements in the lives of the people.
Political activist Kavita Krishnan told The Diplomat, “This tragedy was waiting to happen. The kind of apathy and callousness shown towards the poor laid the groundwork. This is the situation not only in Bihar but all over the country. No party can claim innocence.”
Ambarish Rai of the Right to Education Forum echoed this sentiment. He told The Diplomat, “It’s an attack on the dignity of children and the neglect of the poor by the system. You have few teachers in school. Teachers are not trained. But why leave the preparation of food to teachers who are there in school to teach, not cook?”
The idea of providing lunches to children at school originally came from the southern state of Tamil Nadu and was expanded to the national level in the mid-1990s. For more than a decade the whole country has been implementing it.
Indian Express writes that “The scheme brings together several social objectives — increasing enrolment and keeping children in school, social mixing between castes, employment for women as cooks and organizers and most importantly, easing chronic hunger and malnutrition.”
And according to The Wall Street Journal, “the central government each year distributes about 2.5 million metric tons of grain to about 600,000 schools and also provides grants for other ingredients such as vegetables and oil. The program aims to ensure children at public schools get at least one hot meal a day, at no charge.”
The sheer size of the program raises bigger questions about rampant corruption at every level of government and apathy found among civil society and media towards the poor and marginalized.
In An Uncertain Glory, written by the noted Indian economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and Belgian economist Jean Dreze, the authors condemn the media’s “lack of serious involvement in the diagnosis of significant injustices and inefficiencies in the economic and social lives of people; and also the absence of high quality journalism with some honourable exceptions, about what could enhance the deprived and constrained lives of many-often most- people in the country.”
Further, the book argues that India can maintain rapid growth only when “it pays attention to the essential needs of the people, especially of the poor, and often of women…there is also a continued inadequacy of social services such as schooling and medical care…”
But the political class seems to be more concerned about scoring brownie points against their rivals than helping the aggrieved families and offering solutions to the ills affecting the system.
Bihar has become a political battleground with the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hell bent on tarnishing the image of its former ally, the state’s CM Nitish Kumar, who broke away from the rightist group when radical Hindutva leader Narendra Modi was made its chief campaign manager for the 2014 elections.
Certainly, Kumar cannot escape blame for ignoring warning signs and taking action to prevent the tragedy. But rather than find fault with the ruling dispensation in Bihar, all parties ought to be urgently addressing the situation and doing everything necessary to ensure the continuation of the midday meal program. In turn, this will ensure that the poor are included in the national narrative.
Ambarish Rai added that a “full-proof institutional mechanism needs to be in place for distributing food to the poor. Those who argue for scrapping the scheme are not thinking in the interests of society’s most marginalized sections. In the states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh there is no mechanism to cook and distribute food among the kids.”
India just introduced the Food Security Law aimed at providing cheap and nutritious food to around 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people. According to reports, if parliament passes the bill it will cost $20 billion.
Such a noble social scheme will not succeed unless loopholes are closed and a full-proof mechanism is put in place to ensure its smooth operation.
There is strong motivation to ensure this happens. The school compound in Dharmasati Gandaman which used to be a playground has turned into a graveyard. The majority of the deceased have been buried on the school’s grounds. This will serve as a constant reminder and a prick to the conscience of the nation that failed to protect its own children.