India school tragedy raises questions for Gandhi's food plan

Thu Jul 18, 2013 7:57am EDT
 
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By Sruthi Gottipati and Mayank Bhardwaj

RAIPUR/PATNA, India (Reuters) - The deaths of at least 23 Indian children poisoned after eating a free school meal has triggered an outcry over food safety just as the ruling Congress party is set to launch an ambitious plan to feed 800 million poor, with an eye on elections due within a year.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi's national subsidized food project includes free school meals and expands existing handouts to make it probably the biggest welfare initiative since India gained independence in 1947.

"It's a political move designed to garner support for Congress among the poor, which has been its traditional constituency," said Zoya Hasan, a professor at the School of Social Sciences in New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The National Food Security Ordinance aims to give five kg (11 lb) of cheap grain every month to 800 million people and more than doubles the reach of the existing subsidized food system, whose failings still mean the country is home to a quarter of the world's hungry.

But the school tragedy in Bihar state, the nation's second poorest, highlights the potential dangers of rolling out a major food distribution scheme without strict monitoring of supplies and quality and having to hand responsibility to local authorities, many of whom have weak administration.

In Bihar, the children's deaths prompted protesters to burn effigies of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, chanting slogans denouncing the state government and setting fire to vehicles.

"This terrible tragedy will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for them," said Reetika Khera, development economist and social activist, adding programs like this need to be administered at the local level.

Currently, nearly half of India's annual rice and wheat supplies are lost to rot or corruption, and while deaths from contaminated food are rare, many of the country's poor are offered substandard food, sometimes containing stones and grit.   Continued...

 
Women mourn the death of their children who died after consuming contaminated meals given to children at a school on Tuesday at Chapra in the eastern Indian state of Bihar July 17, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer