In the north-eastern state of Bihar, 22 Indian children have died due to being poisoned by their school meal and further deaths could follow, with more youngsters severely ill in hospital. Youngsters in the village of Masrakh began complaining of stomach pain while eating the food, which is suspected of containing a lethal pesticide. Falling ill very quickly and with no medical facilities nearby, many of the children tragically died before or shortly after they reached hospital.
The incident has caused widespread anger in the district and global outrage. Writing about the tragedy, one Indian commentator in the Guardian warns that “the harsh reality is that food provided to children all over the country is often substandard, and sometimes not even fit for human consumption”.
With more than two-fifths of India’s children malnourished, a situation which the prime minister of India has labelled a “national shame”, state-run schools are meant to provide children with a free meal in the day to boost nutrition among youngsters. The meal should contain at least 300 calories per child, with 8-10g of protein.
However, as with other child support programmes in India which suffer from corruption and inefficiency, much of the food destined for school meals never even reaches the children. According to the Guardian article, studies in Bihar (and also in Uttar Pradesh) have shown that only three-quarters of the requisitioned food normally makes it to the children’s plates. And school cooks often wait for months to be paid their meagre salary of around 10 pounds per month.
Problems with school meals are reportedly widespread. In some impoverished districts of Mumbai, schoolteachers say that children don’t want to eat their meals because they are such poor quality. And incidences of poisoning are unfortunately not uncommon. As reports on the deaths of children were coming in from Bihar, in another state 15 more children were taken ill after a lizard was suspected to have fallen into the food. And in the western region of Maharashtra, more than 30 children contracted gastroenteritis from their school meal.
The Indian government has promised to tackle nutrition problems in the country, particularly through the food security bill which is currently going through parliament. But many commentators say that until corruption and poor practices are tackled in existing programmes, India’s children will continue to be victims of malnourishment or worse.