RIGHT TO EDUCATION INDIA
अखिल भारत शिक्षा अधिकार मंच
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22ND July, 2013
Press Release on the tragic deaths
of 23 school children in Bihar
The tragic deaths of 23 children after consuming the mid-day meal served in a school in Chhapra, Bihar has sent shock waves through the entire country. Reports have come in of students and parents in many parts of the country refusing to let their children consume the school meal even though it comprises a substantial part of their nutritional intake for the majority of school-going children. Media is focusing attention on poor quality of the food served in many schools across the country, and the fact that its nutritional composition is lower than the specified norm.
The Bihar government’s inquiry and newspaper reports have blamed the Chhapra school principal for ignoring complaints by the cook, and protests by the students, about something being wrong with the oil and the taste of the food. Indeed this is unacceptable behavior and AIFRTE demands that accountability must be fixed. However, what is deplorable is the revelation that this appears to be a case of poisoning due to significant presence of insecticide in the food served. AIFRTE demands a thorough investigation so that criminal liability is established.
The mid-day meal scheme is an important component of the programme to ensure that children go to school. In fact it needs to be extended to include milk, egg or an equivalent protein source and fruit for morning and afternoon snack to ensure that no child is hungry or deprived of the necessary food intake to actively participate in learning and play/sports activities in the school. It is of course necessary to monitor the programme successfully for it to be effective.
Already, in most of the schools, School Management Committees or Women’s self-help saving Groups have been delegated responsibility, with the Head Teacher playing a key role, for monitoring the programme. In Bihar, the Head Teacher reports every afternoon through email/ mobile the precise purchase details, down to the expenditure on masalas and salt, apart from that on vegetables, flour, dal etc., to the state HQ in Patna which documents all these details in the HQ computer. There are well-defined rules and regulations. Clearly, adding more agencies to monitor existing monitoring agencies is no solution to the problem. It is necessary to understand why the system is malfunctioning.
Why are those who are responsible for ensuring that children get a proper nutritious meal either resorting to corrupt practices or showing callous negligence or both? When these are not just individual aberrations but relatively widespread attitudes we need to go deeper to understand the cause. The fact that children attending government schools are from poor, deprived, schedule caste/tribe families or from minority communities is an important reason for prejudices dominating the conduct of school and local authorities towards them, and for the callous indifference towards their legitimate needs and rights.
The segregation of children in schools for the poor and schools for well-off elites, a segregation which shamefully has been turned into law by the Right to Education Act (2009) and reproduces the inequalities prevalent in our society, is the reason for the inability to successfully carry forward the mid-day meal scheme as part of an empowering system of education for all. Cutting budgetary costs by failing to provide adequate infrastructure (only a small proportion of schools have kitchens where cleanliness and hygiene can be ensured or where cooks are employed) or properly trained teachers who are adequately sensitized to meeting the needs of young children is the recipe for disasters like the one that has occurred in Bihar. This approach to the schooling of the vast majority of India’s children has to stop.
AIFRTE resolutely asserts that only a system of public-funded common neighbourhood schools, which are attended by children from all classes and backgrounds, can ensure that facilities intended for all children will be of quality and conform to the norms set down. In such institutions, the school management committees will be actively functional, parent-teacher interactions will be productive, and teachers and school authorities will be motivated and accountable. It is unfortunate that the present Bihar government which took the lead in setting up the only Common School Commission in the country when it came to power, allowed the report of the Commission to gather dust and no steps were taken to implement its recommendations. Had its recommendations been taken up for implementation twenty-three precious lives would have been saved and the right to quality education for all children would have become a reality.
AIFRTE condoles the tragic deaths of the children and calls upon all democratic sections to unite in the struggle for a national system of common neighborhood schools so that the sacrifice of their young lives does not go in vain.
Prof. Meher Engineer Ms. Madhu Prasad