The fatal consequences of having a routine midday meal for at least 22 children in Bihar’s Saran district expose the chronic neglect of school education in a large part of India. That governments cannot find a small piece of land for a school and are unable to store food materials without the risk of contamination is a telling commentary on their commitment to universal primary education. The Bihar horror clearly points to the absence of strong normative procedures for the provision of infrastructure, even for a new school. Such inefficiency and indifference is deplorable, considering that the Centre has been levying a cess on taxes, part of which is given to States to strengthen the Mid Day Meal Scheme; the collection stood at Rs. 27,461 crore during 2011-12. If the preliminary evidence pointing to food poisoning and ingestion of yellow phosphorous — which is used in fertilizers and as rat poison — is confirmed as the cause of the tragedy, it points to a colossal failure to observe minimum food safety standards. It is a matter of concern that man-made tragedies such as these can shake the faith of the citizen in a crucial welfare programme, rightly lauded as the biggest school meal programme in the world covering 10.54 crore children.

The scheme has the vital objective of providing specified levels of calories and protein to pre-primary and primary school students. It achieves a lot more, by involving the entire community, providing employment to women, and breaking caste barriers by ensuring that all children have a meal together. It must also be pointed out that public provision of meals has been working well in the better-administered States, while partnerships with NGOs have sometimes miserably failed. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has confirmed that a staggering 95 per cent of meal samples prepared by NGOs in Delhi did not meet nutritional standards last year. The lesson here is that an accountable public system can perform well, arguably better than other arrangements, if there is strong commitment among policymakers and the bureaucracy. Evidently, even the vaunted ‘Bihar model’ of the Nitish Kumar government has a lot of distance to cover. It would be doubly tragic if the death of so many children is turned into a political arm-wrestling event, with little attention paid to systemic changes that can prevent a recurrence. State governments often show great concern for provision of infrastructure for economic growth but fail to see where it all begins — in a school system that produces the workforce of the future. Without even being able to guarantee children a safe meal, their assertions are meaningless.