Death served on a plate – the tragedy of Bihar
Posted on July 18th, 2013

Michelle Alexander

On the 16th of July, students in a school located in Chhapra, India, sat down to their mid-day meal. This is provided free to the students, with produce brought and prepared by the school.  The mid-day meal is part of a program to provide poor Indian students with at least one hot meal a day. In this instance, the food was tainted with insecticide, resulting in many students falling violently ill. 22 students died and dozens have been hospitalized. Over 20 children still remain in hospital, with a few of them in critical condition. All of the students were between the ages of 5 and 12.

It is now believed that the food contained an organophosphate used as an insecticide on rice and wheat crops. Families claim otherwise, as the children who ate the rice and lentils were fine, with only those who consumed a side dish of soybeans and potatoes were affected. The cook was said to have had expressed doubts about the quality of cooking oil used, but was asked to use it by the headmistress. The headmistress and her family are said to be absconding police.  No arrests have been made so far. Investigations have already commenced.

After the event the regional government of Bihar has reacted to criticism with publishing a prominent advertisement in the newspapers instructing the principal and cook in every school, together with officials in charge to check the quality of the mid-day meal before it is served to children.  These ads came a day after 50 more children in the neighboring district of Madhubani were rushed to hospital with food poisoning as well.

Carelessness with the lives of children

These were not the only episodes of mass scale food poising to take place.  Below is a recent timeline of mid-day meal horror stories in India.

  • July 17, 31 children was said to have fallen ill after consuming their mid-day meal in Dhule, Maharashtra.
  • July 5th, reports cropped up from Ajmer, Rajasthan, of insect-infested flour and a dead snake in a kitchen that served mid-day meals to schools.
  • June 27th, 23 students in Panaji, Goa, fell ill after eating their mid-day meal
  • March 2013, 02 children died in Panipat, Punjab, after eating their mid-day meal.

Politicization of a tragedy

As with the case with Indian politicians, political parties have already started the blame game, and this tragedy is turning into a round of mudslinging and finger pointing. The opposition is blaming the government, and the government is calling it a conspiracy by the opposition.

  • Opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and BJP also blamed Nitish Kumar of “insensitivity” for not visiting either Chhapra or PMCH in Patna to meet the children.
  • “The way the opposition of Bihar is responding, I feel that it is a big conspiracy. They want to destabilize the Bihar government,” said KC Tyagi of the ruling Janata Dal United or JDU.

Why is this happening

This program has been victim to various scams since its inception. Embezzling of food stuffs and meals meant for children, poor quality of food, lack of adequate supervision, animal droppings, and insects like bugs, cockroaches and even worms being found sometimes in food is turning this laudable project into a disaster.

Are there any solutions

Experts are suggesting a decentralization of this program. They are also suggesting providing the mothers of these children with the means to cook mid-day meals. The second suggestion, if properly implemented, could cut down on corruption, wastage and embezzlement. Whether any long term solutions are found and implemented to counter this problem remains to be seen.

 

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