The death of 22 Indian children in Masrakh, a village in the north-eastern state of Bihar, due to poisoning from their school lunch, has caused global outrage. Riots have broken out in the district, with distraught parents and relatives wrecking the school kitchen and torching police vehicles, while the state government tried to insinuate that it is a political conspiracy to destabilise them in an election year.
The fear is that attention is being diverted from what is an acute problem in many of India’s state-run or state-assisted schools. While the ruling party in the state looks for excuses, the harsh reality is that food provided to children all over the country is often substandard, and sometimes not even fit for human consumption.
Snakes and worms have been reported in Mid Day Meals, and adulteration has been said to take place as well. Barely were the children in Masrakh rushed to hospital – where over 60 of them are still unwell – when news came from another part of the state that 15 more children had been reported ill, after a lizard was suspected to have fallen into their lunch. Meanwhile, in the western region of Maharashtra another 31 children contracted gastroenteritis after consuming their school meals.
The Mid Day Meal Scheme was introduced to ensure that a hot cooked lunch would be provided to government supported schools. The meal was meant to contain at least 300 calories per child, with 8-10g of protein. The policy was welcomed as it would mean that the children, many of who come from the most vulnerable sections of society, might attend school because of it and also receive some much-needed nutrition. It is estimated that approximately 100 million schoolchildren are fed through the scheme. But unfortunately, the leakages and corruption in the system are said to be equally as large.
Studies in selected districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have shown that only 75% of the requisitioned food is usually doled out to the children. There are also issues of cleanliness. Often the cook hired for the task (at a salary of around £10 per month) is sometimes not paid for months at a time. Even in particularly impoverished areas of Mumbai, schoolteachers have found that the children resist eating the food, because it is such poor quality.
Aware of the constant complaints, the central government had thought of replacing the hot food with prepackaged meals. But there have been instances when even biscuits given to the children have made them dangerously ill. Despite all of this, for some peculiar reason, the government has not taken into account the views of the scheme’s stakeholders: the children who are recipients of this deadly state-run charity.
Even when the children in Masrakh started complaining of stomach pain while eating the food – it is now suspected that organophosphorus pesticide was responsible for the deaths – the school headteacher allegedly forced them to finish the meal. She has now fled. The number of deaths has sadly risen because there were no medical facilities near the school either.
The problem is that both in the acquisition as well as in the delivery mechanism corruption is abound. Most of the food is acquired from the Food Corporation of India, also in the spotlight for its less than satisfactory role in the Public Distribution System, which provides rationed grain at special rates to those who live below the poverty line. While the government gets ready to unveil its flagship food security bill next month, under which 60% of the population will receive food every month at highly subsidised rates, it is unclear how it will ever ensure a corruption-free system where the food actually reaches the people who need it most. Nor can they ensure its quality. Even in the Mid Day Meal scheme, which is far more targeted and could be monitored easily, there is little evidence to suggest that school children are actually getting any nutritional value from it at all.
While Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, has just announced the princely sum of Rs 2 lakhs (£2200) for every family of a child that has died, the fact remains that these underprivileged children have become victims of these free school meals, rather than its beneficiaries.
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