Thursday, July 18, 2013

Today's news articles

Today’s articles are from “The Times of India” and “The Independent”. They talk about a contaminated school meal killing over twenty students in the state of Bihar.

In these articles, you will see the terms lakh and crore. A lakh is 100,000 and a crore is 10,000,000:

Poison theory floats as Bihar midday meal kills 27 kids

MASHRAKH (SARAN): The midday meal tragedy worsened on Wednesday with fatalities rising to 27 and suspicion mounting that the last meal eaten by the children may have been accidentally contaminated or, as Bihar's education minister claimed, deliberately poisoned.

The Bihar government put the toll in what is becoming the country's worst midday meal tragedy at 22. But villagers said angry parents and relatives had buried at least 27 bodies in front of the Government Primary School where the children had their midday meal on Tuesday.

Residents of Dharmashati Gandaman village of Saran district chose to bury the bodies in the school as a mark of protest. Villagers said the 27 buried children did not include those who died on way to Patna. While four children were declared brought dead at Patna Medical College & Hospital on Tuesday night, two children died on Wednesday.

State education minister Prashant Kumar Shahi said traces of organic phosphorous had been found in the food served to the kids, most of them below 10 years of age. "It is a criminal case of poisoning," he said. Shahi alleged that the cooking ingredients came from a store run by the school principal Meena Devi's husband Arjun Rai, whom he described as a member of a rival political party, an obvious reference to the RJD. The cook had told the principal that the mustard oil given to her to make soya curry had a foul smell, he said.

On Wednesday, cops and reporters found Meena Devi's home locked and she had reportedly fled. The only other teacher in the school was said to be on leave.

As the Chhapra toll rose, another minor midday meal poisoning was reported from Navatolia Middle School, near Madhubani, where 50 children fell sick. Sources said a dead lizard was found in the food served to the kids.

There was no definitive narrative from the police on how the toxic food landed on the plates of the kids. The village itself remained virtually out of bounds for police and state officials, with violent protesters blocking roads to the area. The crowd set fire to four government vehicles, including two police jeeps. All the roads leading to Mashrakh remained clogged with trucks, tractors and JCB machines which were forcibly parked in the middle of the roads by villagers.

Heart-rending wails of women were heard over the din of protests from several houses when these reporters managed to reach the village around noon after crossing at least six blockades on foot. A woman was seen banging her head against the mound of earth under which her son Rahul was buried. Another group of women wailed inconsolably under a tree nearby.

According to villagers, the primary school, which opened only a couple of years ago, was running in a 20x15ft room that also served as a community hall for weddings. Midday meals were cooked in the small veranda by 'sevika' Pano Devi and 'sevika' Manju Devi. On Tuesday, Pano did not report for duty and the meal — rice and soya — was cooked by Manju. She and her two children also ate the meal.

Schoolbags, books, steel plates and gunny bags on which the children sat lay scattered in the lone classroom while some chairs and the table of headmistress and teacher were lying outside, smashed by angry protesters.

The villagers pleaded the midday meal scheme be done away with immediately. "As it is, poor quality rice and vegetables are brought for the children. Our complaints go unheeded. The withdrawal of the scheme will be in the interest of our children, our future generation. Please ask the government to oblige us," said Pappu Singh whose neighbour lost his child in the tragedy.

Violent protests were also witnessed in Chhapra, the district HQ, where opposition parties — RJD, BJP and CPI(M-L) — had called a bandh on Wednesday. Several cases of arson and attack on government vehicles and buildings were reported from different parts of the town.

An alleged attempt to break open the gate of Chhapra jail was foiled by SDO A Q Ansari and ASP Ravindra Kumar who ordered lathicharge to disperse the crowd at Daroga Rai Chowk. RJD activists detained the Balia-Sealdah Express at Chhapra Kutchery station for hours.

Prabhunath Singh, newly elected RJD MP from neighbouring Maharajganj, alleged that many lives would have been saved had the district administration been sensitive towards the ailing children. "I arranged buses to carry the affected students to Chhapra hospital," he claimed.

Poor quality, hygiene: It was waiting to happen

The writer has posted comments on this article

Subodh Varma, TNN | Jul 18, 2013, 05.50 AM IST

While it's yet unclear what caused the food poisoning that killed 27 Bihar schoolkids, the midday meal scheme in the state is a mess. A disaster of the kind that devastated Dharmasati village near Chhapra was waiting to happen.

A recent Programme Approval Board (PAB) review that approves the scheme's annual work plan and budget in Bihar said monitoring bodies sent to some districts had reported shortcomings.

"Most schools often served average quality food items in unhygienic surroundings," they reported. In areas the monitoring bodies visited "food was cooked and kept in the open and dirty ground". Children, parents and the community were unhappy with the quality of food.

How do schools store food and where do they cook it? As per SC directives, the Centre allocated funds for pucca kitchen-cum-stores. For Bihar, between 2006-07 and 2011-12, it gave Rs 44,640 lakh for 65,977 such structures, PAB meeting minutes said. The central ministry's appraisal revealed the Bihar government had built just 47,002 kitchen-cum-stores, 71% of target. The balance 29% had not even been started. But this didn't prevent the state from claiming Rs 3,506 lakh to buy 86,248 kitchen devices. The state also claimed replacement of 35,760 units till this February. Kitchen devices include stoves and utensils.

Another aspect is the irregularity of serving midday meals. Last year, between April and December, of the 167 days schools worked, meals weren't served on 33 days in the primary and 36 days in upper-primary. In this period, the state should've used up 75% of the grain allocated. But it lifted only 61%. Bihar hasn't even appointed cooks and helpers as per SC guidelines. 183,583 cooks-cum-helpers were to be appointed but only 168,340 were working. The SC had fixed number of cooks to the number of students to avoid negligence in cooking.

These are part of a larger neglect of this nutrition and enrolment scheme. In Bihar, 80 lakh of the 1.47 crore primary school children are served midday meals. Of 53 lakh children in upper primary, 26 lakh are covered. This, despite a strong SC order issued in 2001 and repeated over the years to give all children cooked meals.

The Bihar government has succeeded on one count: inspections of schools to check how meals are prepared and distributed — 97% schools were inspected till last December. PAB noted the government order on ranking of officers linked to their carrying out inspections. But, was the school in Dharmasati inspected? To what end?

Contaminated school meals kill 22 children in India

Angry parents take to the streets after deadly outbreak of sickness at school in northern India

Thursday 18 July 2013

Angry crowds took to the streets of India’s Bihar state to protest over the deaths of at least 22 school children who ate poisoned food provided through a scheme monitored under a £25m UK government programme.

The children fell ill after eating a meal of rice with soybeans and potatoes prepared with oil apparently contaminated with insecticide.

The headmaster of the school – located around 25km from the city of Chhapra in the Saran district of Bihar – is reported to have fled the school when the children started vomiting. Police have registered a case of criminal negligence against him.

Furious parents besieged the local police station after the children started to fall ill, protesting that many would have survived had the school acted more quickly to provide medical assistance. At least 80 other children from the Navsrijit Primary School were affected by the outbreak, with several said to be in a critical condition.

Reports locally said that there had been previous poisoning cases in the area linked to the Midday Meal programme, one of the key planks of the Indian government’s anti-poverty strategy. The Midday Meal Scheme in Bihar is monitored by the UK government through a £25m grant from the Department for International Development (DfID) for its Poorest Areas Civil Society Programme Phase II, which is due to run until 2015.

The DfID programme is intended to help eight million people from the poorer elements of Indian society in seven states, including Bihar, through grants and capacity-building support to civil society organisations. A DFID spokesman said UK money did not directly fund the scheme but helped to monitor the way it was implemented: “DFID does not fund the Midday Meal Scheme in Bihar. Our support to PACS helps communities to effectively monitor the implementation of the scheme.”

Oxfam India demanded a full investigation into the deaths and said it had previously raised concerns about the programme “because of lack of funds, poor quality food and highly inadequate monitoring of just a handful of schools once or twice a year.”

The dead were reported to include two children of one of the school cooks. Last night there were still fears that the death toll would rise. One school cook is also reported to be receiving hospital treatment. One 12-year-old pupil, Savita, said that she suffered a stomach ache after eating the meal and started to be sick. “I don’t know what happened after that,” she said.

Raja Yadav, the father of one young victim, said: “As soon as my boy returned from school, we rushed to the hospital with him.”

Initial tests suggested that the food had been contaminated with an organophosphate chemical used as an insecticide on wheat and rice crops.

Suspicions fell on a new type of cooking oil used to prepare the meal. State education minister PK Shahi said the school cook had told him the oil looked “discoloured and dodgy” but her concerns were ignored by teachers who said it was safe. Some teachers also suggested the food may have been stored in contaminated containers.

R K Singh, the medical superintendent at the children’s hospital in the state capital, Patna, said: “We feel that some kind of insecticide was either accidentally or intentionally mixed in the food, but that will be clear through investigations.

We prepared antidotes and treated the children for organic phosphorous poisoning.”

The opposition BJP party criticised the time it took for children to be taken to hospital. “It took 15 hours to evacuate kids, it’s only after 17 kids died the authorities decided to shift them at midnight,” said BJP leader Pratap Rudy.

Protesting villagers set four police vehicles alight and police reinforcements had to be drafted in as anger spilled over. The state has offered compensation of Rs 200,000 for each child who died.

Indian government’s flagship free school meal scheme: Worthy in its aspirations, but plagued by a string of scandals

Wednesday 17 July 2013

The midday meals scheme is one of the Indian government’s flagship anti-poverty programmes, designed to provide at least one nutritious meal a day for the children of the nation’s poorest families. The Indian government says it reaches about 120 million children across the country.

But the scheme has faced criticism over the quality of the food provided and standards of hygiene. There have also been allegations of corruption, with food intended for children disappearing and then being sold on the black market.

Oxfam’s programmes and advocacy director Shaik Anwar said Bihar was not the only state that had shown little concern for improving the free school meal scheme, despite many previous warnings from civil society organisations and right-to-food commissioners.

In April this year a 13-year-old girl died in Aswara, near Ahmedabad in the north west, and 10 others were taken ill after eating the midday meal at a government school. A dirty water tank was believed to be the cause of the contamination.

A year earlier 132 children were admitted to hospital after eating the midday meal at a school in Parvati near Pune in western India. Idlis (savoury cakes) prepared in unhygienic conditions were blamed. A couple of months earlier 50 children at a school in Mangalore in the south-west were taken to hospital after eating the midday meal. And 72 children were taken ill after eating a meal at a school in Surat in the north-west in 2010.

The India Today website cited other examples of problems with the quality of the meals. It reported that dead lizards, frogs, insects and a rat had all been found in food provided under the midday meal scheme.

The scheme was first introduced in southern India, where it was seen as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school. Since then the programme has been replicated across the country. It is part of an effort to address concerns about malnutrition, from which the government says nearly half of all Indian children suffer.

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