In a country where nearly half the children suffer from malnutrition and over 120 million depend on the state’s mid-day meal scheme for their daily nutritional value, a system that allows food cooked in contaminated oil fed to helpless kids is more lethal than all terrorist threats combined. Unfortunately, this episode in Saran is not a one-off instance. Photo: Reuters (Reuters)
In a country where nearly half the children suffer from malnutrition and over 120 million depend on the state’s mid-day meal scheme for their daily nutritional value, a system that allows food cooked in contaminated oil fed to helpless kids is more lethal than all terrorist threats combined. Unfortunately, this episode in Saran is not a one-off instance. Photo: Reuters
(Reuters)

Canaries in the mines

Hubris about the status quo has to be replaced with seething yet purposeful angst

Changing status quo is every person’s battle and each one of us has to bear arms in their own way.

In September 2004, Chechen terrorists killed 186 children in a vicious attack at their school in Beslan, Russia. It seems that our children—especially the poor, don’t need to fear terrorists. Their own caregivers in schools and the apathetic system are deadly enough.

In a country where nearly half the children suffer from malnutrition and over 120 million depend on the state’s mid-day meal scheme for their daily nutritional value, a system that allows food cooked in contaminated oil fed to helpless kids is more lethal than all terrorist threats combined. Unfortunately, this episode in Saran is not a one-off instance. Just days later another 30 children were taken violently sick in Dhule district of Maharashtra because of contaminated water, and in Gaya an eight-year-old died and dozens fell ill after consuming Vitamin A drops under the Anganwadi scheme. Some weeks ago, little girls were rescued from an illegal children’s home in Jaipur where they had been sexually exploited for months and several of them had leucorrhoea discharge, a condition commonly found among sex workers. The youngest of these girls was seven years old.

The instances that make news are but a handful of thousands in which our country’s apparatuses ravage, exploit, starve, sell, abuse, rape and kill its children. And the irony is, many of these cases happen in projects set up with the intention of helping the underprivileged and voiceless using taxpayer and donor money.

The fact that these incidents will go through the familiar circus of preliminary blame games, lengthy investigations, cumbrous legal processes and indicting of some last-mile operators misses the point. It is not just individuals who perpetrate such crimes of negligence or deliberate exploitation that are to be blamed. They are inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. Incarceration of a few thousand traffickers, food adulterators or corrupt officials is an insignificant blip in the multi-million crore leakage that secures our berth as the 95th most corrupt country in the Transparency index—16 places behind Sri Lanka. After all, even without pesticides in meals, the ingredients used in such schemes are frequently found unfit for consumption by any but the most desperate—which India has in plentitude.

When over 20% of medicines sold in metro cities are reported to be spurious and a company that has been barred from the US market for faking drug trials continues to operate in India, why are we surprised when such instances happen in the hinterland far from supposedly ‘aware’ population whose mindshare, potency and effective action is limited to televised debates and canned denunciations. Nothing seems to matter anymore and even when obvious solutions stare us in the face, as a society we display suicidal behaviour and continue to remain uninvolved.

Take road accidents for instance. India holds the world record and even adjusted for population our situation is abysmal. In 2011 alone, over 136,000 people died in road accidents and almost four times more were injured. That is one death every four minutes.

A substantial number are attributed to entirely preventable causes. Commercial vehicles left parked on roads or carrying material protruding from behind alone cause thousands of deaths. And yet neither is it prohibited by any consequential law nor is it meaningfully enforced. That is perhaps because according to Transparency International, truckers pay $4.5 billion in bribes. However, where we don’t connect the dots is that India reportedly loses 2.7% of its GDP or several times the amount paid in bribes, because of road accidents. Similarly even if 10% parents stop sending children to school because of the poisoning incidents—it will doom 12 million children to illiteracy. In India, even minor slips cause catastrophes. Such wretched equations underscore every bane ranging from adulteration, trafficking, negligence, apathy, poor planning and implementation. And the brunt, of course, has to be borne by the poorest and the middle classes.

But we must realize two important truths. This geometric degradation of our social ecosystem cannot continue forever and something’s got to give. And the situation is not going to improve by itself or await some proverbial saviour. If the system is corroded, then it needs systemic refurbishment—and we are part of the system.

The instances above and those that dominate our news and lives these days are canaries in the mines. They warn us of impending danger, which left unheeded will certainly come home to roost. But to begin making changes, hubris about the status quo has to be replaced with seething yet purposeful angst.

Imagine a young child of seven years who looks like she is five because of malnourishment. Imagine her having to walk to a place called school where she goes to get one meal a day. Imagine her having to eat food that is stinking and bitter but still something that will fill her scrawny, famished stomach. Visualize her contorted face as she feels the pain of poison searing her intestines. Picture her fear and panic as her body convulses in agony. Imagine her crying out for her mother in sheer terror as she dies a painful tortuous death.

Now—imagine that little girl to be your child. If that doesn’t move us to action, nothing will. Changing status quo is every person’s battle and each one of us has to bear arms in their own way.

Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the www.outstandingspeakersbureau.in and author of
Everyman’s War (www.fb.com/everymanswarbook). The views expressed are personal.

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