India's free school lunch under threat

BEN DOHERTY
Last updated 17:02 26/07/2013
School lunch
Ben Doherty

Puja and her classmates at Chatkari village in Bihar, in eastern India, eat their government-sponsored Midday Meal.

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Lunch - handfuls of rice, pulses and vegetables she eats from a metal plate in the concrete cool of the front stoop - is the main reason Puja comes to school.

"I love lunch in school," she says between mouthfuls, "I have a younger brother who is at home, and he will come here [to eat] too."

Puja and her classmates at the single-room government school in Chatkari, in the eastern state of Bihar, are a few score of the 120 million Indian children who will eat a free, government-provided lunch at school today.

But the nationwide Midday Meal program that feeds them - designed to encourage children to attend school and to combat India's epidemic levels of childhood malnutrition - is in disarray, after 23 children died from a poisoned lunch last week, exposing a broken nutrition program amidst an ailing school system.

Three hundred thousand teachers in this state alone have voted unanimously to boycott the Midday Meal, saying it is too corrupted, inefficient, and vulnerable to abuse.

Tens of millions of children will miss out on what, for many, is their only reliable meal.

The principal of Dharmasati Gandaman Primary School, where the children died after eating a lunch poisoned with insecticide, has been arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy.

After more than a week on the run, Meena Devi surrendered to police in Saran district Thursday protesting she had been set up.

"I am innocent and [have been] deliberately framed in this case. I demand a probe," she told Hindi television networks.

"These are baseless allegations levelled by vested interests."

Last Tuesday nearly 50 children under her care fell ill after eating a lunch of daal, rice, potato, and soya beans.

Some children had complained the food was bitter but had been told to keep eating by Ms Devi. Indian law requires the principal to taste the food first, but it's understood Ms Devi did not.

Within minutes, the children fell violently ill. Twenty-three, mostly the youngest, died.

A toxicology report found the meal was contaminated with massive levels of organophosphorous, an insecticide.

The case has ignited all manner of conspiracy theories.

It has been widely reported a bottle of insecticide was found by police at Ms Devi's home, though this could not be confirmed with police.

Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar said the poisonings were part of a political plot to destabilise his government.

"This does not look like an accident. The children had pointed out something was wrong with the food," he said.

"The accounts given by the people, the forensic report, the concentration of pesticide, all this points towards something."

But the tragedy, too, has sent the Midday Meal program into crisis.

"It was unanimously decided at a meeting of the Bihar State Primary Teachers' Association to boycott the scheme," association president Barajnandan Sharma said.

"It is giving teachers a bad name due to rampant corruption."

Even here, in Chatraki, opinion is fiercely divided.

"In my opinion, it would be better if the Midday Meal scheme is stopped because it is in the grip of politics," Chatkari principal Pradeep Kumar tells Fairfax.

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Governments use the meal to promote their credentials among poor voters, but the wastage is enormous, and the benefits negligible, he says.

"For the Midday meal, I can buy only poor quality of rice from the amount of money allotted by the government. There is an issue with funding government."

But Chatkari's village headman Guleshwar Punia is here today too, campaigning for the Midday Meal to be continued.

"It is a good program, it attracts children to school. At least parents send their kids to school for food," he says.

More broadly, the Gandaman tragedy has become emblematic for India's entire public school system: chronically underfunded, endemically corrupted and failing the children it is built to serve.

The 150 children here at Chatraki, from grades one to eight, study in one classroom, seated on hessian bags on a concrete floor. They do their lessons on slates and read from ancient, dog-eared textbooks.

Chatkari is archetypal of millions of small, struggling villages across the country.

Headman Punia laments the school is woefully under-resourced, the teachers poorly- and irregularly-paid.

He would like more children from his village to go on to higher education, but knows that few from this class will.

"The school does not open regularly, only a few days a week. Only when the teachers come can the school open. Even here there is supposed to be seven teachers, but only two of them have come today.

"We villagers feel this will discourage our kids from education. If the education for our children was better, we would be happier."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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