The bone-chilling tragedy of 22 children dying in Chhapra in rural Bihar after having their mid-day meal at a government school has rightly shaken the public conscience. But we should resist the temptation of simplistic knee-jerk conclusions, or from attributing blame to the local officials alone or to the state administration. The incident could have happened almost anywhere, and probably does but invisibly, on a smaller scale.
For many reasons, this was a tragedy waiting to happen. The calamity is the outcome of something much larger than mere local neglect by junior officials. It is the result of how poorly programmes for India’s poor, even our children, are organized, resourced and monitored. The full details of the incident are yet to be ascertained. But this we know: that the primary school in question did not have a building, and was ran out of a local government office building. There was no store, therefore, rations for school meals could not be purchased in bulk and kept in a safe place. There were just two teachers for five classes of children, one was on leave, and the only one holding fort was a low-paid untrained para-teacher. She purchased the provisions required for each day’s school meals daily from a local store. A container for the cooking oil was possibly one used earlier for insecticides. The specific details may be partly inaccurate, but they are not pertinent.
What is indeed relevant is that school meals across the country are grossly under-resourced. Allocations for cooking costs have not been enhanced despite runaway food and fuel inflation in recent years. Many schools have not been invested with the basic infrastructure for cooking and storage, utensils, a clean eating space and potable drinking water. Cooking staff are poorly paid. For a programme as scattered as this, the most effective systems of monitoring are always those that are also decentralized. This needs social audit systems, hearing the voices of children, and effective systems of regular monitoring by parent committees, school management committees and local panchayats.
Much of this would entail additional public money, but also far greater political prioritization, administrative will and the willingness to be accountable. But we should clamour to muster both the resources and will required for this, because what can be a higher priority for public investment and attention than the health and futures of our children?
Let us not lose sight in this moment of tragedy about the many strengths of the school-meal programme, now a legal right of all children in government-funded schools after the passage of the food security ordinance. Studies reveal that for many poor children, this is the only substantial meal they eat in the day. It has positively affected school enrolments, and encourages parents to send to school children who were formerly engaged in work by setting off some of the opportunity cost of the child’s lost earnings. But a third gain, often forgotten, is that it also teaches important lessons in social equality because children of diverse backgrounds eat together, and often the food is cooked by women of disadvantaged castes. In a highly unequal society in which differences in caste, class and religion are expressed by the refusal to eat together, the importance of these social lessons in equality should not be forgotten.
Let us not draw the wrong lessons from this tragedy. Alarming suggestions are being forwarded for supply of packaged food instead of hot local meals, or the transfer of this responsibility to reputed non-governmental organizations. There is no better nutrition for children than hot, fresh, diverse, culturally appropriate meals, and no more effective system than of food prepared by local women’s groups monitored by local institutions and social audits.
As a special commissioner of the Supreme Court mandated by it to monitor the performance of all governments in various food programmes, I have found that even with many shortcomings it is still the best implemented of all social programmes, comparing favourably to the public distribution system, the Integrated Child Development Services scheme and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. We need to further strengthen and resource this programme, democratize further its implementation and monitoring, and not consider its curtailment or dilution in any way.
Harsh Mander is a former member of the National Advisory Council.