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Finger at ‘heavy dose of poison’ in food
Not just aberration, experts cry criminal negligence

New Delhi, July 17: Health experts and policymakers today spoke of “criminal” intent or negligence, with at least one suspecting a “heavy dose of poison”, as the toll in the Bihar midday meal tragedy rose to 22.

Reports yesterday had said eight children died after having the midday meal served in the government-run Gandaman Primary School in Saran district, around 90km north-west of Patna.

The tragedy has struck at a time the human resource development ministry has set up an expert committee to suggest better safety standards for the scheme and improvements in the quality of the food served.

HRD minister M.M. Pallam Raju said the incident was an “aberration” but experts were scathing in their criticism. “Under the MDM scheme, there have been instances of bacterial infection after consumption of meal. But this incident is the first where there seems to be some heavy dose of poison mixed in the food,” said T. Sundararaman, a member of the expert panel and executive director, National Health Systems Resource Centre, New Delhi.

“The addition of heavy dose of poison could be either backed by criminal intent or (it was) a case of gross criminal negligence. The issue here goes beyond whether health and hygiene standards were followed.”

Sundararaman said it might be a case of pesticide contamination but didn’t explain why he suspected “criminal intent”.

Junior HRD minister Jitin Prasada hinted at negligence. “It appears that guidelines have not been followed,” he said, adding that state governments were “responsible” for implementing the scheme under which nearly 12 crore children in 13 lakh elementary schools get hot, cooked meals every day classes are held.

The HRD ministry had first launched the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education in 1995. The support came in the form of food grain. In 2004, the scheme was revised to provide cooked midday meals — with a calorie count of 300 and 8-12gm of protein — to all children studying in classes I to V.

In 2008-09, the scheme was revised again to cover children in all government and aided upper primary schools (classes VI to VIII). The calorific value of a meal for these students was fixed at a minimum of 700 while the protein content had to be 20gm.

The idea behind serving cooked meals was to encourage disadvantaged children to attend school and ensure that pangs of hunger didn’t distract their attention.

The Office of Supreme Court Commissioners, an apex court-appointed panel that reviewed eight social sector schemes including the MDM in nine states, had said the programme had a positive impact on enhancing school attendance.

Today, policymakers blamed the Bihar tragedy on lack of enough teachers to monitor the scheme. “As schools do not have adequate regular teachers, the management of the MDM is looked after by para (temporary) teachers and cooks. Supervision and monitoring are almost absent,” said National Advisory Council member N.C. Saxena.

According to MDM guidelines, the food has to be tested by two adults and a schoolteacher before being served, and burnt oil and bad quality grain should not be used.

In Bihar, Saxena said, most schools fail to procure grain from the Food Corporation of India regularly.

Saxena called for daily involvement of parents in monitoring food quality and accused those responsible for preparing the midday meal at Gandaman Primary School of “criminal oversight”.

“The Bihar incident could have been avoided, if the monitoring of food quality was done on a daily basis,” he said.

Minister Pallam Raju said the tragedy was a lesson. “A senior official from the ministry has gone to Bihar to study the matter. We will take all possible steps to avoid such mishaps in the future.”

Raju said the meal served in the school had rice, dal and soyabean sabzi.

An FIR has been lodged against the head teacher for negligence. The ministry has asked for a report from the state government.