Why India's school meal deaths are a terrible tragedy

A schoolgirl eats her free mid-day meal, distributed by a government-run primary school, in New Delhi May 8, 2013 The programme is the world's largest school feeding programme

India's Mid-Day Meal programme is the world's most ambitious free school feeding programme, providing cooked meals to more than 120 million children in over a million schools across the country.

In a country where nearly half of the children are undernourished and struggle to go to school, the programme is a weapon to tackle hunger and illiteracy.

Economists believe the programme bolsters primary school enrolment and attendance, eliminates hunger, enables children from diverse class and caste backgrounds to share a meal together and bury social prejudices, and provides children with hygiene and nutritional education. There is enough evidence to prove that the programme has, by and large, been a success, they say.

That's precisely why the deaths of more than 20 school children after consuming contaminated free meals in Bihar state is shocking.

As with most of India's large state-run social schemes, the performance of the free meals programme varies from state to state.

States like Tamil Nadu - where the mid-day meal began in the city of Chennai (Madras) as early as 1925 - and Kerala and Orissa have reported good results. Results in laggard states like Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal have been less than impressive.

The source of the food contamination in the Bihar school is not entirely clear yet - doctors say that they have found evidence of insecticide in the food; other reports talk about contaminated vegetable oil used in cooking. Tainted food supplies or awful kitchen hygiene could have led to the tragedy.

Whatever the reason, Bihar, one of India's poorest states with a shoddy record in social welfare, has a long way to go in delivering an efficient mid-day meal programme for its more than 70,000 schools. Most of the beneficiaries come from poor families with an average annual income of $396 (£262) and where a third of the parents are illiterate, according to government estimates.

A 2010 study by India's Planning Commission found that more than 70% of children in the sampled schools in Bihar were unhappy with the quality of the food served. A fifth of them said they did not get adequate meals. Three-quarters of the schools reported they did not have adequate utensils for cooking.

The study also found that many schools in the state also did not receive their food stock "in a planned manner on a monthly basis, as a result of which a few schools were overstocked, resulting in breeding of insects [in the food]". Despite all this, more children have enrolled in schools across the state since the programme was introduced eight years ago.

Economist Reetika Khera, who has extensively researched the programme, says the Bihar deaths are a "terrible tragedy".

But, she says, they also come at a time when the programme is steaming ahead, and "showing huge improvements" mostly in northern India, where it was kick-started following a November 2001 directive from the Supreme Court to provide "cooked meals to all primary school children".

"When the scheme began in northern Indian I remember many schools had no place to cook, no water. Teachers would double up as cooks, and children would collect firewood. Now schools have cooks and helpers, utensils and proper kitchen sheds for the cooking," says Dr Khera.

Even the quality of meals has improved, say economists.

In Rajasthan, remembers Dr Khera, children would be served unappetising meals of boiled wheat spiked with sugar and salt in the early days of the programme. Now the meals have become nutritious with a wide ranging and appetising mix. The state of Tamil Nadu provides a boiled egg to every child every day of the week. Rajasthan gives fruit to every child twice a week.

The Bihar tragedy, say economists like Dr Khera, is not an indictment of the programme. But it proves India needs to tighten up its hygiene (children have fallen ill in Bihar and Goa and Delhi in the recent past after school meals) and improve safety at school kitchens (more than 80 children were killed in a kschool fire in Tamil Nadu in 2004) to make the Mid-Day Meal a programme it can be truly proud of.

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    #107 Jay

    Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi - all London-educated barristers. All super-talented individuals, highly intelligent and yet....in economic matters, entirely illiterate. The poverty of hundreds of millions is their legacy. And, indirectly, these dead children are their legacy, too.

    Weep for South Asia, so much humanity blighted by bad politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    @ Ram (106). It's not working for, but from Socio-political elite family background from India.

    Yes, they work(ed) for private sector. Now such Indians &/or children from such families are showing more interest in public/corporate policy as business environment or job market in US/EU r not so promising.

    Now they understand the lucrative power game in host country & want to benefit from it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Pakistan's basic foundation was wrong- even theoretically. Most of the liberal & educated (in real sense, not by Oxbridge degree), even Muslims, did not migrate to Pakistan.

    Jawaharlal was nagging enough with matching wealth & influence (through family inheritance) to manage PM position. He sidelined many better & sincere leaders only to promote people like Krishna Menon (Jeep scam fame).

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    @100 Jay - "Indian socio-political masters were (and still are) INCAPABLE even to identify brain/talent, leave alone grooming it" - Only a very small percentage of Indians work for socio-political masters, vast majority work for private sector and it is in their interest to use and develop the talent in their shops. More and more are doing it to for competitive advantage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    @ Ram (102). It's simply not possible to build public confidence before our institutions (i.e political masters) undertake a sincere & meaningful effort towards reform- not mere lip service. Confidence will build automatically.

    Both BJP & Congress Govt undertook sustained propaganda to build Image w/o building the country first & failed- unlike Singapore or South Korea (before Seoul Olympics).

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    @90 Jay - why Congress did not enforce --? I do not know whether Nehru or Indira were power hungry. It is clear they did not do what was suggested by Shastri. I do not know what choice they had. May be they had more confidence in themselves than the people around them and felt compelled to carry one for greater good. They saw what happened in Pakistan due to early exit of their leader Jinnah.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Cont. #100. You would be surprised if analyse the level of frustration of any such globally recognized Indians who stayed back in India. You can read about Satyajit Ray's last few years or watch the film "Ek doctor ke maut". Even our spiritual leaders like Vivekananda were not spared. Do you know the frustration in his last days or Nibedita were thrown out of Belur Math after Vivakanda's death?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    @95, 96 Jay There is a real need to rebuild public confidence in our institutions and the place to start is attacking dishonesty at ground level where one can see it in action and see and feel the results.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    @ Ram (99).
    You think the bribe your dad paid to the man at the counter or the whole police department who refused rent did/do not have backing from higher ups?
    You think GOI needs a sophisticated agency like FBI or Mosad to know that almost every real estate deal in cities like Mumbai need ~33% in black money? Do U have any idea why rich DLF/Reliance type Cos are so successful only in India?

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    India hardly suffer (then AND now) from brain drain but more by killing brain/talent WITHIN India.
    Indian socio-political masters were (and still are) INCAPABLE even to identify brain/talent, leave alone grooming it.

    Most of globally recognized Indians got domestic recognition ONLY after they got recognition from abroad- be it Satyajit Ray, Satyen Bose, Jagadish Bose or Hargovind Khorana.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    @95, 96 Jay. Most Indians suffer at the ground level at the hands of uncaring employees at the ground level who want you to pay them for what they are paid to do. My father had to make endless trips to government offices to settle his refugee claim, then took 10 years to register his home, because he could not bribe the man at the counter. The police department his tenant never paid the rent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    @ Ram (97).
    Indians started to leave in 60s (mainly after 90s) because businessmen in USA, UK, Canada etc wanted cheap & easily exploitable manpower (mostly) for routine jobs like teaching, data cranking (some call it 'research') and managerial (basically clerical) jobs.
    Indian Govt did not make much effort to reduce it mainly because its own people from 'elite' community availed it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    @85 Jay. Indians started to leave in 60s because USA, UK, Canada and others needed readymade trained workers and did everything they could to attract them. Job opportunities in India were also not very attractive. Indian politicians focused on delivering justice and opportunity did not block them from leaving after huge expenditure on their education. They were victims of brain drain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    @ Ram.
    I'm not sure whom should you hold accountable if a company perform badly? The CEO/CXXs or chowkidars/clerks?
    Then comes measuring success of an organization. Should it be measured based on its employee retention, salary-benefits of average employee, social contribution, number of job creation etc OR privilege to its top executives?

    India is progressing fine if one judge it by 2nd options.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    @ Ram (93)- the place to start is attacking dishonesty at ground level (AND TOP level).
    I'm trying to do just that. Ground level is not so dangerous as the top level. Probability to get an honest, ethical person at the ground level is also far, far higher than that at the top level in 3rd world countries like India.

    Deliberately confusing others, refuting or distorting facts won't help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    These children died because of a political system riddled with corruption, overseen by greedy babus who pocket cash while the poor live in squalor & sometimes die from neglect or worse. It is an affront to humanity - the world is increasingly concerned at India's inability to govern itself properly. Space programmes while kids die from govt-supplied food... What a sickening state of affairs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    @78 Jay I have indicated in 73, that I am a fiscally conservative and was not happy with socialism of Indira. But not all she accomplished was waste or bad and maybe she had no choice. There is no real redo. We really need to continuously improve our processes. There is a real need to rebuild public confidence in our institutions and the place to start is attacking dishonesty at ground level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    @ Ram (89). You are WRONG, as usual.
    India is not only at the bottom but also its position is worsening. E.g check transparency International raking for last few decades. Same trend in QUALITY of our education/research. Now internal extremism (not Pak/China threat) is main national security threat.

    These issues were either nonexistent or far less severe during 1950-70s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    I have been reading the comments..Govt is corrupt , people are poor , insensitive etc..we all know this , there's no need to repeat but what are we doing for things to change... ? why don't we participate in making things better which is real democracy...I found AAP ( aam aadmi party) a ray of hope where people are participating for a change..I am also working for a better tomorrow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @ Ram (87). Care to respond to my posts #85, 78, before you drag other issues?

    Ram(87)- Can you enlighten me why Congress (which Sashtri belonged to) did not enforce that?

    Why JawaharLal, Indira were so power hungry? Is that for national good or did they believe differently as compared to many other great leaders?

    Mahatma Gandhi even suggested dismantling Congress party after independence!


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