The tragic loss of 23 children who ate contaminated food at a government-run primary school in the East-Indian state of Bihar, near Patna, speaks volumes about the continued policy paralysis afflicting governance in the health and education sectors in India.
The Bihar incident, together with several equally fatal incidents in Rajasthan, West Bengal and Odisha, has brought India’s famous Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) – which feeds over 120 million children every day and costs $2 billion an year – under scanner. The Bihar CM, Nitish Kumar, in his defence, alleged conspiracy against his government; while primary teachers boycotted the MDMS, fearing charges of mismanagement. The responsibility for the children’s deaths, however, is yet to be owned – individually or collectively.
The MDMS was first conceptualised during the British rule in 1920s for the disadvantaged children of Madras, now Chennai, and later replicated in Pondicherry by the French. After India gained independence, MDMS ran in few southern states but was mostly dormant across the country. In 2001, the Indian Supreme Court, sitting on public interest litigation, directed all government-run primary schools to provide midday meals to children. However, India continues, even today, to fight for the legal right to subsidised food. For example, the recent Food Security Bill guarantees eligible citizens subsidised food grains but, stands little chance of passing in Parliament. Even if the bill did pass, in its current form it lays more emphasis on eliminating hunger than on improving nutrition and cannot address the issue of neonatal and child mortality in India.
The MDMS fiasco in Bihar cannot be understood in isolation from the politics influencing health and nutrition in India. Bihar is arguably India’s most backward state – economically and socially. Widespread poverty and mass illiteracy make the state prone to corruption as the population can get easily tricked by local politicians’ grand talks about growth and development. CM Kumar’s model of ‘good governance’ may have reaped more benefits than that of his predecessor’s, but, the fact of the matter is that, centrally funded development schemes, such as MDMS and others, rarely reach their targeted groups. The fear of food contamination due to improper storage and distribution facilities is only a facet of a bigger problem.
India’s food security story is paradoxical: India is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, rice, fruits and vegetables, but, still, four children die every minute from hunger, malnutrition and hunger-related, treatable diseases. The MDMS went a long way in encouraging parents in rural India to send children to school; employing women as cooks; and, of course, ensuring primary education. But the government’s apathy has reduced an otherwise generous scheme to mere vote bank politics, and for the children who died, a tragedy. For the Indian poor, government inaction is a hard reality with which they have long grappled and, of late, have had to come to terms with.
Ashish Goel is a young lawyer educated in Calcutta and London and has travelled widely in rural Bihar.