It has been nearly one week since 23 schoolchildren were tragically killed after consuming pesticide-filled food in Gandaman, a village in Bihar. Now that the initial waves of worldwide outrage have slightly subsided, the question remains: How can Bihar—one of the poorest regions in India—even begin to reconfigure its corrupt and ineffective systems so as to prevent future devastation?
First, it is important to note that this tragedy was not unforeseeable—or unavoidable. Poison-related deaths are shockingly common in the region; indeed, in May of 2012, nine laborers were killed in Bihar after consuming tainted flour. In response to this incident, the government of Bihar offered monetary compensation of 200,000 rupees for the families of the dead[i]. Fast-forward one year, and this compensation remains the only action that the government has taken to remedy its approach to remedy its standards for health and safety in food.
The reactions of Bihar’s public officials immediately following last week’s tragedy were halfhearted at best and disinterested at worst[ii]. And if the global media had not picked up on the story, their response would likely have been even less concerned. After investigating the cause of the poisoning, officials simply reported that the principal of the school, Meena Kumari—who fled shortly after the disaster—is guilty of criminal negligence[iii]. But while this charge is likely true, it hardly touches the root of the matter. The fact remains that, in a region dominated by agriculture, children rely on school meal programs to provide them with basic nourishment. Indeed, research shows that school attendance throughout India tends to increase perceptibly following the implementation of meal programs, revealing just how important they are to students and families[iv].
The lunches at the Bihar school were provided by one such charity meal program. Since 2001, India’s school meal programs—commonly called the “Mid-Day Meals”—have become staples of the school system. But oftentimes it is politics, rather than good intentions, that lies behind their implementation. Many school meal NGOs are tied directly to specific politicians, and even those untethered to political agendas are often riddled with corruption, careless organization, and unsanitary methods[v].
The people of Bihar face so many demanding issues that the sanitation of school meals is in danger of being either drowned out or ignored. In order to prevent last week’s tragedy from merely passing by, then, media forces—both local and global—must continue to follow up on the issue. Still, outside attention will likely not be enough to change the status quo regarding health standardization. This is an issue that requires powerful action from Bihar residents themselves before it can be resolved. At the moment, Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, is in a somewhat open-ended position; he recently split with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and he has yet to attach himself to another political party[vi]. If grassroots activists from within Bihar take advantage of this period of transition, and if they establish a strong, organized movement, the combination of media coverage and internal pressure could be enough to persuade Kumar to make food safety a priority before the next election.