Midday Meal Tragedy in Bihar – Innocent Victims of Callous Governnace

The midday meal tragedy at Gandaman village of Masrakh block of Bihar’s Chhapra district has come as a severe blow to the tall claims of the powers that be in both Delhi and Patna. The central government treats the midday meal (MDM) scheme as a great innovation that has improved enrolment and retention rate of students at primary level in rural areas while ensuring some basic nutrition to children. And Nitish Kumar is always busy congratulating himself for the great turnaround he claims to have brought about in Bihar. Both these claims lie shattered in the wake of the Masrakh MDM massacre of at least 25 kids (some local people however claim the figure is no less than 29).

The state government instituted a routine probe but even before the probe could reach any conclusion, the education minister of Bihar who recently lost in the Lok Sabha by-poll in the same area, started invoking the conspiracy theory. The school principal who fled away the moment children began to fall ill is apparently related to some leader of the RJD and the minister would want us to believe that the whole tragedy was actually a grand conspiracy hatched by the opposition to discredit and destabilise the government of Bihar. Forensic reports have indicated the presence of a pesticide in the food served to the children, and chances are that the soyabean curry served to the children was actually cooked in pesticide and not edible oil.

The probe must get to the bottom of the tragedy and everybody found guilty or negligent must be punished. But it will clearly be wrong to treat it as an isolated instance – in fact, the very next day there were reports from Madhubani of a similar incident, where children fell ill after taking their midday meal apparently because a lizard had fallen into the food, and from Gaya, where a student died after being administered Vitamin A. The MDM malady is not confined to Bihar – Tamil Nadu too reported a major MDM mishap even as Bihar was reeling under the shock of the Gandaman tragedy. Clearly, the entire MDM scheme is designed and administered in such a flawed and irresponsible manner that the scheme has turned into a scam and tragedies like the Gandaman one can happen almost anywhere anytime.

The Masrakh massacre must lead to a thorough overhauling of the MDM scheme. The midday meal scheme is a key component of the Union government’s flagship education programme Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA). Yet there is no guarantee that that the materials used for cooking are fresh and the cooking takes place in a hygienic environment. It is also time the school system, and especially teachers, were freed from the MDM burden. Critics of the MDM scheme rightly point out that education has taken a back seat while the whole focus is on implementing the MDM scheme. And above all, there is this all-important question of how the system deals with the people, especially the poor. The utter contempt with which the poor are treated in every sphere of life can be seen most glaringly in schemes like MDM. It is the rural poor who are forced to send their children to MDM schools and the governments think the poor will put up with anything.

As far as the Bihar government is concerned, it has long been known that like the NRHM in UP, MDM has become a victim of official negligence and pervasive corruption. A few years ago when the government was found guilty of a huge mismatch between its withdrawal and expenditure accounts, considerable irregularities were found in the realm of MDM and SSA. Recently the state government returned an unspent sum of Rs. 462.78 crore received between 2006-07 and 2009-10 ostensibly for building kitchen sheds and purchasing utensils for the MDM scheme. Now in the wake of the Masrakh tragedy, the Union HRD Ministry has started talking of systemic failure in monitoring the MDM project in Bihar.

It is not just the MDM scheme and the education system that have nearly collapsed in Bihar, the systems of healthcare and disaster management also stand brutally exposed. The children had fallen ill at midday on 16 July and effective medical care for critical cases could begin only in Patna and that too after an unpardonable lapse of more than twelve hours by which time the death toll had already reached near twenty, and four more died on the way and two more patients died soon after being admitted in the Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH). This shows the state of the healthcare system in districts and the quality of the disaster management response of the state government. Could not the government rush a well equipped medical team to Chhapra from elsewhere? Could not the government use helicopters to airlift critical cases patients to Patna?

The biggest crisis that is being felt in Bihar today is the crisis of governance – the very plank that had brought Nitish Kumar to power. And underlying this crisis of governance is a total absence of sensitivity and accountability. Nitish Kumar who treats the people as subjects who must come to him in the ‘Darbars’ he holds in Patna or in the course of his periodic ‘yatras’ (the petitions submitted in such ‘darbars’ seldom yield any result though) is never to be seen by the side of the people when they are aggrieved, be it a case of police repression or any disaster or calamity, natural or man-made. And ever since the BJP ministers were ‘dismissed’ it is Nitish Kumar who is holding on to all those ministries and that includes the crucial department of health. Pushed into the opposition, the BJP is now obviously desperate to make political capital of every failure of the government, but it has had an equal share in promoting the official culture of apathy, arrogance, negligence and non-performance masked by phrases like ‘good governance’ and ‘development with justice’. It is significant that the people of Masrakh turned away BJP leader Sushil Modi.

Redesigning of the MDM scheme, a thorough overhaul of the welfare mechanism, and fixing of appropriate accountability for the enormous crime that led to the MDM tragedy at Masrakh – that’s the least that we owe to the innocent children whose lives were cut short so tragically by the ‘welfare’ arm of the state.

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