When laxity proved costly 

Aarti Dhar
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Grave negligence in ensuringmid-day meal quality and timely medical treatment was responsible for the tragic death of 23 school children in Bihar, says a HRD Ministry report

Mid-day meal under the sky?Students of a Patna primary school sit on railway tracks as they have their lunch.Photo: Ranjeet Kumar
Mid-day meal under the sky?Students of a Patna primary school sit on railway tracks as they have their lunch.Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

The Union Human Resource Development Ministry report on the death of 23 children after consuming mid-day meal (MDM) in a school in Chhapra in Bihar has described the incident as “grave negligence” and put the blame on the Head Teacher. 

A recent analysis by the Ministry had showed that Saran was one of the 144 most poorly performing districts in the country and among the 10 worst performing districts in Bihar. This had been brought to the notice of the District Magistrate. 

A report prepared by Amarjit Singh, Additional Secretary, HRD Ministry, has said that the meal was cooked in the open as there was no kitchen-cum-store in the school and hence the food items were stored in the house of the Head Teacher, who would issue the daily quota of ration to the cooks. The same process was followed on the fateful day also but when the cook noticed that the oil was different and it had a peculiar smell, she brought it to the notice of the Head Teacher. 

However, she was chided away by the Head Teacher saying that the oil had been procured for her own house and there was nothing wrong with it. In this particular case, the practice of tasting the food before it is served to children, which is mandatory, was also not followed even when the children complained of its odd smell and peculiar taste. Rather than tasting the food herself, the Head Teacher insisted that the children eat the food which led to the unfortunate incident, the report says. 

Worse, there are two teachers in the school. One of them was absent on the day of the incident. The Head Teacher who was present and oversaw the distribution of the meals, fled after the incident and there was no one to take the children to hospitals. Villagers, relatives and parents took the children to the nearby primary health centre, where adequate medical facilities were not available which increased the number of casualties. 

Symptoms and discussion with the doctors suggest there was insecticide in the food, the report said, adding that the local officials as well as the people also suspected that the cooking outside might have contaminated the food with an insecticide being used in the area recently. 

The report further says that of the 70,000 schools where MDM is served, 18,000 schools do not have kitchen-cum-stores and more than 8,000 schools do not have a building of their own altogether.

Asking the State government to ensure that the school teacher and a member of the school management committee tastes the food before it is served to children, it should also ensure proper storage of food and training of cook-cum-helpers and district resource persons for managing safety of food grains and hygienic cooking.  

In addition to strengthening plans for medical treatment to avoid delays in emergencies, the report calls for drafting effective guidelines for prevention of such incidents.   

The report further said that representatives from two monitoring institutes for Bihar — A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna and Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi — had visited a number of districts and recorded the dissatisfaction of the children with the quality of the food served. Food was cooked and kept in open and unhygienic surroundings. This was shared with the State government. 



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