A forensic report confirmed that the free school lunch that killed 23 Indian children was contaminated with a pesticide. But a UN report indicates that New Delhi had been urged to ban the toxic chemical as early as 2009.
It was meant to be an ordinary school day for the pupils in the Indian village of Gandaman. The Dharmashati primary school located in the district of Saran in the eastern state of Bihar had opened just a few years ago with an enrolment of 89 children. But the events surrounding a free lunch served on Tuesday, July 16th, would end in tragedy and rock trust in one of the world's largest school feeding programs.
Within minutes of eating a meal of rice and potato curry in their one-room school, a total of 48 children fell ill, vomiting and convulsing with stomach cramps. They were rushed to Patna, the state capital, where they were hospitalized in critical condition. For 23 children aged between four and 12 help came too late. They all died of food poisoning.
A forensic report later revealed that oil used to cook the school lunch contained monocrotophos, a highly toxic concentrated form of an agricultural insecticide widely used and easily available in India, but banned in many other counties, according to a UN report.
Many of the victims were buried on a playing field adjacent to the primary school that served the free school lunch - the only meal of the day for a number of the poor youngsters.
The Mid-Day Meal Scheme
The lunch was part of India's Mid-Day Meal Scheme, a school feeding program reaching out to about 120 million children in more than 1.2 million schools across the vast country, according to government data.
The program is designed to enhance school enrolment, encourage attendance and improve nutritional levels in a country where nearly half of its children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, according to the government's own estimates.
The scheme has had a long history in India. In 1925, a mid-day meal program was introduced for disadvantaged children in Madras Municipal Corporation. By 1990-91 the number of states implementing the program with their own resources on a universal or a large scale had increased to twelve states, according to the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development.
Today, it has been adopted by most Indian states after a landmark direction by the Indian Supreme Court in 2001.
'The magnet that draws kids to school'
So far, the program seems to have been successful in tackling the issues of classroom hunger and attendance. Om Vir Singh, headmaster of a public school in the town of Vrindavan in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, told DW that: "the Mid-Day Meal Scheme is the only magnet that draws kids to school. Not all of them get nutritious food at home. That is how we have managed to keep kids in classrooms."
Suraj, a sixth grader, who has been having these meals for two years, says the free lunch is sometimes the only meal he has all day. "My father is a daily wage laborer and we can't afford another big meal. I enjoy coming to school," he said.
Complaints over food quality
However, while the scheme seems to have contributed to an increase in attendance, it still has many shortcomings. According to a performance evaluation report issued by India's Planning Commission in 2010, the scheme had already drawn several complaints over food quality.
"There have been instances where due to long supply chain, food grain supplied got adulterated and pilfered," the study stated, raising the question of whether state authorities ignored the warnings that ultimately led to the mass poisoning.
As with most large social programs in India, the success rate of the free meals scheme differs from state-to-state. For Bihar, the evaluation report states that "a lack of proper planning and absence of proper coordination resulted in erratic supply of funds and food grain."
WHO asked to ban toxin
Schools generally do not receive quota of food grain in a planned manner on a monthly basis. As a result, some schools are "overstocked resulting in breeding of insects," the reports states. The study also found that more than 70 percent of the children in the sampled schools in Bihar had complained about the poor quality of the food.
But most importantly, the Indian government had been asked by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ban the use of monocrotophos as early as 2009, due to the fact that the nerve poison had been "frequently associated with both accidental and intentional fatal pesticide poisonings," a WHO study revealed.
The paper says that, although the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommends puncturing and crushing the containers to prevent their reuse for any purpose, "the reality is different." Because of their sturdiness and look, the report adds, many pesticide containers are "often later used to store objects, food grains and water, and sometimes even medicines."
School principal arrested
The Bihar state government has alleged a political conspiracy behind the incident to malign the government. Indian police recently arrested the headmistress of the primary school while on her way to court to surrender. The woman, who had been missing for more than a week, is said to have been charged with murder, poisoning and criminal conspiracy,
But Indian economist Kamal Nayan Kabra believes the recent tragedy was the result of a combination of several factors. "When there is such a long distance between the beneficiaries and the providers, there is a lack of control. When the character of the administration is so ineffective and doesn't respond to the needs and aspirations of the people, then such things are slated to happen," Kabra told DW.
The expert is of the opinion that what the country needs is an implementation of checks and balances in order to ensure that good quality material is delivered to the schools.
The Indian government reacted to the incident by announcing it would set up an inquiry into the quality of food given to school pupils.
The new committee is set to look into various aspects of the program, such as "the quality of food that is supplied, the effectiveness of the supply chain and hygiene of the place where it is cooked."
However, it remains unclear how successful the reforms can be in a scheme that is hampered by weak implementation and poor quality control.