Moments like this can bring massive change if we act fast. When over 50,000 of us sign our call for transparent school meal inspections across India, and the arrest of those responsible in Bihar, we will invite politicians to try samples of school food, and get it covered in the news nationwide.
Covering nearly 120 million school children, India’s mid-day meal scheme is one of the largest and most ambitious school nutrition programmes in the world. It was put in place as an incentive to poor parents to send their children to government schools and address the massive problem of malnutrition and illiteracy.
But the scheme has massive problems. In the last few days alone, we have seen the highest number of children dying after a poisoned school lunch, and dozens of kids around the country falling ill and being hospitalised due to food contamination. In many schools, there is no infrastructure to store the food grains safely and often the food is cooked in highly unhygienic surroundings, in the open, next to garbage sites. The cooks and assistants who prepare the food are also often untrained in basic hygiene.
An initial report on the cause of death of the little children in Bihar has confirmed that the food they were served was contaminated with dangerous pesticides. The oil was stored in a container previously used to store pesticides. We know it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Around the country, food for school meals is often packed with insects, worms and dead lizards. For many kids – school means neither education, nor nutrition.
Economists have testified to the success in primary school enrollment due to the mid-day meal scheme. And good nutrition can help a child succeed. But this Bihar tragedy shows that there is no room for complacency. The government has announced that safety norms will now be painted on school walls but that’s not enough. We need total transparency in the food inspection process. No more government cover-ups of school food villains!
When a little baby died in a Punjab hospital, Avaaz members demanded greater access to health care rights for poor people in the state. Let’s come together again and protect India’s vulnerable children who are needlessly dying because of our carelessness and corruption.
With hope and determination,
Alaphia, Joseph, Anne, Ari, Alice, Ricken, Wen-Hua and the rest of the Avaaz team