School Meals and Child Death in India

Hunger

Like most, I am appalled and saddened by the death of 20+ (and rising) children in Bihar, poisoned by pesticide in their state-provided school lunch. This guardian article has a good run down on the issues that beset the program.

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.

Indias deadly problem with school meals | Kishwar Desai | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk.

What is missing from the analysis is the magnitude of the hunger problem India is trying to solve. It is estimated that over 40% of children are undernourished in IndiaSchool meals have large public health benefits if done right. So it is vitally important that this program work, as this Indian teacher so eloquently details in her blog post.

It’s this absence of monitoring, I believe, that’s sabotaging a scheme that’s helped bring millions of children into school. The scheme was originally envisaged as government-run, but community aided and supervised. In practice, because parents and teachers are both busy, the whole system lacks anyone to ensure hygiene and quality.

The entire post is worth a read.

India reduced its global hunger index by about 24% since 1990. But note that Bangladesh’s percent reductions have been higher. As The Week points out, the last thing you want is for parents to pull their kids out of school because their kids will get poisoned, and for this program to end because it cannot be implemented without poisoning the kids.

What is especially egregious in this case was that the children noticed something was amiss, and alerted authorities, who did not listen. India’s authoritarian school institutions do not abide any feedback from children, especially the children of low/no privilege that attend government schools. Hunger and lack of choice probably played a part as well. There’s also early evidence that the school administrator ignored warnings from the cook about the cooking oil, calling it “home made”.

In the end, like everything else in India, it comes down to institutional quality and money. For all the complaints about excessive “regulation”, programs like Food Safe in BC are designed to ensure that people working with food know how to handle food, what to avoid, and how to identify and prevent dangerous situations. It takes effective institutions to ensure that quality and safety are maintained consistently and the people involved do the right thing most of the time. India’s performance in providing reliable services for its poor is also complicated by vast state-to-state disparities in institutional quality. India’s so called growth has also been top-heavy. People living in villages and the urban poor have not been a part of India Shining (or its new incarnation Bharat Nirman).

Can regulations on food safety, quality and delivery be enforced in the absence of a good monitoring and accountability system? Can India use the money it gets from “developing” to provide better services for its people? It will take time, and hopefully, eventually tragedies like the one above will be less frequent.

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