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Corruption, poor quality taint India school meal scheme

The bell announcing lunchtime is a high point for pupils in state-run schools across India. For most, this will be their only nutritious and wholesome meal of the day. But in the impoverished eastern state of Bihar on Wednesday, that meal proved to be fatal. So far, 23 children have died after being poisoned by their free school meal.

Officials suspect that the food - rice and potato curry - was contaminated by a chemical used in pesticides. The government's ambitious Mid-Day Meal Programme is believed to be the largest school nutrition scheme in the world. First launched in a limited capacity in 1995, its coverage increased after the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that a school meal was the right of all primary school children.

In 2011, the Mid-Day Meal Programme was estimated to have fed 113.6 million children. It is aimed at tackling malnutrition - the World Bank says about half of all Indian infants are malnourished. It was also introduced to promote primary education, act as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school, and improve enrolment and attendance.

But the tragedy at the school in the village of Masrakh in Saran district, has once again drawn attention to widespread corruption, and implementation and quality problems underlying India's well-intentioned school meal programme. This is not the first time that pupils have been served contaminated food, with earlier cases of dead frogs, lizards and insects landing on their plates.

In several evaluations since 2001, the programme has been found to have positive effects on enrolment, elimination of hunger and promotion of gender and social equity, according to the UN World Food Programme's State of School Feeding World-wide 2013 report. Experts say the problem lies not with the plan, but in its implementation. "Nearly none of the schools follows a protocol. There's no protocol for the preparation of the meals, for sourcing the ingredients and where students should eat," said Nishit Kumar of Childline India Foundation, a non-profit.

"Frankly, it surprises me that not more such cases have happened," Kumar said. Very few parents were satisfied with the quality of the food, according to a study sponsored by the government of the north-eastern state of Meghalaya. It showed that rarely did primary school pupils in Meghalaya get the legally guaranteed 300 calories per day in their school meal. Hot lunches were not served every day and they weren't cooked hygienically in half of the schools, the study found.

In 2008, the Comptroller and Auditor General said provisions for regular monitoring and inspections, which were part of the programme's design, were not being followed. The audit also disclosed leakages, deficient infrastructure, delayed release of funds and inflated transportation costs.

Police in New Delhi seized eight truckloads of rice in 2006 that were meant for primary schools. Instead, they were allegedly being siphoned off by a non-profit group in connivance with government officials. Often, food grains bound for schools are sold in the open market and replaced with inferior quality grains. "The food provided under the scheme is so sub-standard that even animals won't eat it," Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar was quoted as saying in 2012.

The Bihar school tragedy has also highlighted potential problems that may arise with the government's ambitious food security plan to provide subsidised grains to 800 million poor via a corruption-ridden and inefficient food distribution system. There were warnings about the school meal scheme in Saran and 12 other districts in Bihar. They were cited among 106 districts nation-wide for their poor performance in the free school meal scheme, the Times of India newspaper reported.

The report quoted a study by the AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences and Jamia Millia Islamia University that pointed out widespread mismanagement, poor quality food, lack of trained cooks and little monitoring by parents. The families of Masrakh are inconsolable. "The food has turned killer," a woman who lost two sons told the IANS news agency. She said: "We did not know that when our children went to school, we would have to see their dead faces.-"

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013


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