NEW DELHI, India - India's school lunch program killed 22 children and sent more than two dozen others to the hospital this week in the northern state of Bihar, after a deadly pesticide made its way into free lunches provided to children attending a government-run school.
But analysts here argue that it was poverty, not poison, that killed these kids.
The deprivation of their families made them desperate for the school's free food. Their low rank in society made it impossible for them to demand that it be prepared under safe and hygienic conditions, and ensured they went unheard when complaining of the food’s foul taste.
The alleged criminal negligence of the school's headmistress — who police say sourced the contaminated cooking oil from a shop owned by her husband — was only the murder weapon.
“[The midday meals program] is seen as some charity we're giving to these poor people,” right to food activist Dipu Sinha told GlobalPost.
“Only 30 percent of the schools in Bihar had any inspection visits over the last year. Obviously, nobody cares if these children get good food.”
According to state education department officials and local doctors, students at Dharmashati-Gandaman Primary School in Bihar's Saran district were poisoned with organophosphorus, a pesticide frequently used by farmers here to commit suicide.
How could enough insecticide get into school lunches?
Some local news reports have claimed that the cooking oil used to prepare the meal was stored or transported in a recycled pesticide bottle. Others that the meal was cooked in an old pesticide container.
However, an expert on poisoning at the New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) said that initial reports were not wholly consistent with organophosphorus poisoning, and local doctors themselves may have contributed to the children's deaths by administering a potentially dangerous antidote.
“Atropine is an excellent antidote for organophosphorus poisons, but even a few ampules given to a child can be deadly if it is not indicated,” Dr. V.V. Pillay, head of the toxicology and poison control center at India's most prestigious hospital, told GlobalPost.
Under an ambitious scheme to fight hunger and raise school attendance, India spends nearly $2 billion a year to provide free lunches to more than 100 million children attending government-run and government-aided schools. But countless rural schools still lack the infrastructure and know-how needed to provide safe, healthy food.
With malnutrition affecting as many as half of Indian children in some states and 1.67 million children not attending school, the program is sorely needed. And though it is plagued with problems, the midday meals scheme is one of India's most popular government programs — which in itself speaks volumes.
But in India, corruption is a common scourge, and stealing food from hungry people is far from rare. Government employees skim from supplies meant for school lunches. Or politicians grant contracts to provide school meals to fraudulent NGOs owned by their relatives or cronies, who do the same.
The reaction of Bihar's political class illustrates the root cause of the problem.
Instead of launching a serious inquiry into the case or reaching out to the families of the dead children after this week's tragedy, local politicians sought to score points against their rivals before the bodies were even cold.
One went so far as to insinuate that the children had been poisoned purposefully to sully his party's reputation.
That attitude spells disaster for the people who depend on welfare schemes like the school lunch program. Because they are mired in poverty, their complaints are too often ignored — like the kids in Bihar who were told to eat up when they said the poisoned food smelled funny and tasted bitter, according to the Times of India.
“It's a combination of social and economic inequality,” Sinha said. “Children who access government schools now increasingly come from the poorest sections and from the lower castes. You see this kind of apathy in every government program now.”
Indeed, the saddest part of the Bihar school lunch tragedy is that — although it made front pages here — it's not really news.
Over the past six months, more than 350 children have been poisoned by school lunch programs around the country, though until this week there had been only one fatality.
And even as this week's tragedy occupied the nation's news anchors, other poisoning cases confirmed that, at least for the poor, life in India is nasty and dangerous.
In one case from Thursday's papers, 34 children at a residential school in Maharashtra fell ill from drinking contaminated water. In another, an eight-year-old boy dropped dead in another district of Bihar after being given what was thought to be a dose of Vitamin A at a local health center.
“The extent and the magnitude [of the tragedy in Bihar] was shocking,” said Radha Krishna Das, managing program director at the ISKCON Food Relief Foundation, an NGO that provides free lunches to 1.2 million schoolchildren a day under the government scheme..
“At the same time, we can say that there are so many circumstances which could lead to things like this [that it was an accident waiting to happen].”