In its first report on the Bihar midday meal deaths,the central government has listed a string of systemic failures and put the school principal in the dock for failing to act on warnings.
Twenty three children had died and dozens landed in hospital after eating poisoned lunch at Gandaman primary school in Saran,Bihar,on July 16.
The report prepared by the human resource development ministry notes that although Bihar has expanded coverage of the midday meal scheme from 54 per cent of the students to 65 per cent in the past year,there are a number of systemic issues which require immediate attention.
Of the nearly 70,000 schools that serve the midday meal,the report points out,18,000 dont have a kitchen-cum-store and more than 8,000 lack a building,including the Gandaman school.
It also cites reports of two monitoring institutes,A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna and Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi,that have brought out dissatisfaction of the children with the quality of the food served.
An analysis in April 2013 showed Saran was one of the 144 most poorly-performing districts in the country and one of the 10 worst-performing districts in the state. This was brought to the notice of the district magistrate,Saran as well as the state authorities. This should have been followed by corrective action, the ministrys report states.
The Gandaman school lacks a kitchen-cum-store and food material was stored at the house of the principal. The school is running in a community building and the midday meal was cooked in the open,making it difficult to ensure hygiene and safety of the food, the report states.
The principal would daily set ration quota for the midday meal to be served. This practice was followed that tragic day as well but the cook noticed that the oil looked and smelled peculiar and pointed it out to the principal,who chided her,claims the report of Additional Secretary,HRD,Amarjit Singh.
The meal was not tasted by a teacher as mandated. In fact,the only other teacher at school was absent that day. Alarm bells should have set off when the students complained of odd smell and peculiar taste of the food,the report adds,but the principal insisted that the children eat the food which led to the unfortunate incident.
And when the children took ill,the principal,instead of getting them medical care, ran away and went into hiding. To compound the crisis,the nearest Primary Health Centre was not equipped to deal with the situation. So much so that affected students could not be given even salt water,leading to a higher death toll.
To prevent such a tragedy in future,the report recommends that Bihar ensure prior tasting of the meal by a teacher and a member of school management committee,expedite construction of buildings,kitchens and storage silos,train cooks in hygienic cooking,and put in place an emergency medical plan in all schools.
The HRD ministry plans to send a team to Bihar next month for a detailed review.