Tragedy stalks the hungry


By Sarosh Bana

The horrendous food poisoning tragedy that took the lives of 23 school children in the northern Indian state of Bihar in July 2013, has brought the national ‘mid-day meal scheme’ under a cloud.

The children, from some of the poorest homes in one of India’s most backward states, were among those in a one-room school in the village of Dharmasati Gandaman who fell violently ill as they lunched on a meal of rice and potato curry. They started vomiting and convulsing with stomach cramps and the poisoning effect was so severe and rapid that some of them died in the arms of their parents even as they were being carried to hospital.

The lunch was part of India’s National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NSPE), the official name of the mid-day meal scheme. It is the world’s largest such programme that provides cooked meals to some 120 million children in more than 1.27 million schools across the country.

This nation-wide effort was launched as a centrally sponsored (Federal) scheme in 1995 and since 2008, covers all children studying in Government, local body and Government-aided primary and upper primary schools and EGS/AIE (education guarantee scheme/alternate innovative education) centres, including madrassas, or Islamic schools. With food prices rising faster than workers’ wages, it was the free mid-day meals more than the education imparted that persuaded the poor to enroll their children in these state-run schools. The scheme aims at enhancing enrollment, retention and attendance of children in schools and simultaneously improving their nutritional levels. The calorific value of the meals are revised from time to time, currently stipulated at a minimum 700 calories through the provision of 30 grams of pulses, 75 grams of vegetables and 150 grams of rice or wheat per child, per school day.

Initial forensic investigation into the children’s deaths in the Bihar village near the district town of Chhapra revealed that the poisoning was caused by cooking oil that had been stored in a used pesticide container, the contaminant having been monocrotophos, an organophosphate insecticide that is acutely toxic and in effect a nerve poison. Monocrotophos is widely used and easily available in India, though the country had been urged in 2009 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to consider its ban. It is already disallowed in countries like Australia, Cambodia, China, the European Union, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States. Besides, pesticide containers are often not discarded in India after use, but recycled and used for storing consumables. Read More