On July 16th at least 23 children in the Indian state of Bihar died after eating a midday meal that was provided for free by their school. Nearly as many are in critical condition in a local hospital. Tests have revealed that adulterated cooking oil, perhaps containing pesticides, is likely to blame. A government inquiry has determined that the principal of the school, who is in hiding, must be held responsible for the bad ingredients or unsafe methods used in preparing these meals.
This event is horrific, without a doubt. Yet its damage could be even worse, if it raises too many doubts about the value of a largely successful programme. The midday-meal scheme, which began on a small scale decades earlier, received the support of India’s Supreme Court in 2001. Since then most Indian states have adopted it, offering free meals to children in state-run or state-assisted schools. More than 120m children, including many who would otherwise go hungry, receive these meals every school day.
According to a recent analysis by Farzana Afridi of Syracuse University and the Delhi School of Economics, at a cost of three cents per child per school day, the scheme “reduced the daily protein deficiency of a primary-school student by 100%, the calorie deficiency by almost 30% and the daily iron deficiency by nearly 10%.” Ms Afridi also found that, after controlling for all other factors, the meals scheme has boosted the school attendance of girls by 12%. Abhijeet Singh of Oxford University found that, in some parts of India where children were born during a drought, the health of those who had been brought into the meals scheme before the age of six was compensated for earlier nutritional deficits.
What the disaster in Bihar has done, at the very least, is to highlight some of the pitfalls of the scheme. As with any programme of this size in a country rife with corruption, the meals scheme is riddled with problems. The corruptible state is not alone in funding the programme; it is joined by private companies and NGOs. Corruption exists not just among state entities but among the supporting agencies too, as was demonstrated in 2006 when a Delhi NGO was caught dipping into rice that was meant for midday meals. In the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the levels of malnutrition are among the highest in the country, it was found that only three-fourths of the food meant for children reached them. Food is often stolen by the administrators’ faking their students’ attendance. Beyond that, reports of adulteration—not only with shoddy or unsafe foodstuffs, but including finding worms, lizards and snakes—are common.
Next month, the Indian government will be voting on a food security bill which aims to provide food to 60% of the entire population, by means of a public distribution system. This one school’s tragedy comes at an especially crucial moment, when officials ought to be forced to inspect the leaky pipeline of distribution. At the same time it will be important to bear in mind: This scheme has done a lot more good than harm.
First published on economist.com.
Image credit: GlobalPartnership for Education