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More Than 20 Young Indian Students Die After Eating Contaminated School Lunches

July 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In India, at least 23 children died after eating school lunches that may have been contaminated by insecticide. Judy Woodruff talks to Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics about the heartache for the victims' parents and the lack of government accountability when calamities occur.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The reverberations continued today in northeastern India from yesterday’s news of the sudden deaths of young schoolchildren from eating contaminated food.

Angry protesters today demanded the resignation of the chief minister of India’s Bihar state. Crowds burned an effigy in their rage over the deaths of 23 children who’d eaten a contaminated free lunch at school, while relatives of one victim gathered around a fresh grave.

MUKESHA RAM, father of victim (through translator): We are angry with the school authorities because they fed my child such food that he died. That is why we buried him in front of the school.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Families rushed children to the hospital Tuesday, within hours after they’d had a meal of rice, potatoes and soy. Today, a top state official said the rice might have been tainted with insecticide, and investigators found an insecticide container in the cooking area.

One of the cooks fell ill as well, and one told authorities the cooking oil had looked odd, but the principal ordered her to use it anyway. The principal fled after children began getting sick, and police are still looking for her.

India’s national education minister also promised a thorough investigation of the free school lunch program, which feeds almost 120 million children.

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M.M. PALLAM RAJU, Indian national education minister: And I think the focus should be to see that it doesn’t occur again. And, of course, responsibility will be pinned on what has gone wrong and who is responsible for it. But that apart, it is an important and integral part of the schooling system, and which gives those minimum nutrients to our children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The incident has already become a political issue. Opposition leaders visited one hospital and complained about the emergency response.

SUSHIL KUMAR MODI, opposition leader (through translator): The biggest flaw which was apparent is that, had the officials been active and ensured that these children reached the hospital in Patna urgently, they could have been saved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dozens of children remain hospitalized, most now in stable condition.

For more on how this could have happened, I’m joined by Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute, where he’s an expert on Indian economic growth, trade and development.

Arvind Subramanian, welcome back to the NewsHour.

Twenty-three children dead, how could this have happened?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN, Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics: Well, Judy, you know — the irony is that this is one of the more successful programs in India, the midday meal scheme.

And because it was so successful, the Supreme Court in 2001 actually named it mandatory for all states to do that.

But that being said, you know, this kind of thing requires good administration to deliver. So what’s obviously happened is some combination of negligence, incompetence and also corruption, frankly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who’s in charge of this program? You said it — we said it’s a national program, 120 million children. Who runs it?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: But it’s actually administered not just by the state, but in this case it’s actually administered at the school level.

The local government provides the food. And the schools in fact hire people to cook it. And it turns out in this case that the oil was contaminated. Now, that was in part negligence. It also turns out that actually the groceries were bought from the store which was owned by the principal’s husband.

And they both disappeared. So there’s also something there fishy going on. So maybe the supplies were not very good either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us about regulations.

How much in India or in this region, this Bihar state — are there regulations how food should be handled in schools and other public institutions?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Well, in all of this, it depends very much upon how good the local administration is and what kind of accountability there is of these officials, and the school who are implementing this.

Now, Bihar is a state where regulation is not — this is not a byword for good regulation in the state. It has — traditionally been lawless. There has been a lot of corruption, although the last eight, nine years, it turned around.

So, the irony is that this has happened at a time when this government — the chief minister is called Nitish Kumar. He has actually acquired a reputation for being very able and his government has been showing good governance. But, in this case, things go wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet we saw people marching in the street calling for him to be removed from office.

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Yes.

But the question is that this will disappear in a few years. The question is, do we have strong accountability mechanisms to actually ensure that this doesn’t happen again? And that is not obvious. It’s pretty weak in a state like Bihar.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We also heard complaints about the fact that the children died in their parents’ arms on the way to the hospital, on the way to getting medical care. What sort of medical system are we talking about?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Right. Very weak, very weak, Judy, because even finding a place, a hospital with enough doctors and enough supplies is a big problem.

Many of these children were transported in motorcycles by their parents trying to just scramble to find some kind of facility where they would have some basic care, and that wasn’t easy. So one part of the story is also about how weak the Indian medical system is and how weak health delivery is in places like Bihar.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But let me just understand again. The preparation of food is purely handled at the local level.

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is nobody, there is no set of rules and regulations that is saying, food has to be inspected, the containers have to be inspected?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: No, there are regulations.

But the question is that there’s one thing, it’s in the law. How well it’s respected, how well it’s implemented, it depends upon local administration officials.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell me about India’s food supply. Is it a matter of food being scarce and difficulty of getting it into the schools and the school system or is it a matter of distribution?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Right.

You know, the irony now, of course, that India is sitting on something like 70 million to 80 million tons of stocks of unused food.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Unused food?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Yes, so it’s just piling up.

Often, the rats are eating it up and it’s — there’s just a lot of food. So, food scarcity is not the issue. The issue is when this gets supplied to schools here, how well they’re kind of used in cooking, the quality of the food. Often, the quality is not great because they have been lying around for such a long time.

So it’s all about how good governance is, how good the capacity is at the local level to actually do the things that the law requires them to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said a few minutes ago that in a few days this may be forgotten. Why do you say that? Is not something like this — couldn’t it provide an impetus for the state or the country to tighten up these regulations and make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: You know, this program had a record of lots of things going wrong in the past in different states.

And I just think that this is not seen as a big enough kind of calamity to galvanize action. This is kind of yet another kind of incidence of poor mismanagement, corruption in parts of India that never had a good reputation for good governance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You really mean that, losing 23 young children and then dozens of others still in the hospital, that’s not seen as a serious — as a — you said a calamity?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Yes. I wish I could say honestly that this will be seen as a calamity enough to spur action. I’m not so sure, Judy, to be honest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why?

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Because this kind of thing — it all finally boils down to, what are the pressures on these politicians and officials to be accountable? What pressure is there on them?

And because we have had much worse, you know, cases of calamities in India, floods, famines, chronic malnutrition. We did a story here last time here about power shortages in India.

So, on the scale of things, it seems odd to say, but this doesn’t rise up to the level of something that I think politicians would really respond to with the kind of vigor that this requires.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sobering.

Arvind Subramanian, thank you very much.

ARVIND SUBRAMANIAN: Thanks, Judy.