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Millennium Post

Let’s stop politicising tragedies

Should political parties play politics over tragedies and natural calamities? Only last month, we witnessed the political blame game after the Uttarakhand tragedy in which many were killed and thousands left homeless. Now the same is happening in Bihar where 23 children were killed eating poisoned mid-day meal provided by the government. The rival political parties in the state are indulging in a game of passing the buck. Knives are out to strike the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar who was showing off his achievements in Bihar on many fronts including the Bihar development model. His rivals and critics who were looking for some issue have found the mid-day meal tragedy as a godsend and try to beat him with it.

No doubt that the intent behind the mid-day meal scheme is noble which is to lure hungry children to school with free lunches and achieve the dual goals of nourishment and education. This scheme aims to provide 450 calories and 12 grams of proteins for children studying in primary level and 700 calories and 20 grams of proteins at the upper primary level to boost their nutritional level. The centre feeds children in 13 lakh schools at an annual cost of Rs 10,000 crores. While the state governments are entrusted with the responsibility of its implementation, the centre provides dry ration and financial assistance. While the numbers are impressive, but the problem lies in its implementation.  

The scheme was popularised by the then Chief Minister K Kamaraj in the 1960s in Tamil Nadu and later expanded by the M G Ramachandran Government in 1982 with an eye on poll but it got such rave reviews that even the World Bank praised the scheme. Finding its advantages, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao thought of the ‘National Programme for Nutrition Support to Primary Education’ in 1995.

But look at the ground level situation.  Since 2005, cooked mid-day meals have been served in schools in Bihar. The primary school, where the incident took place was established in 2010 with no infrastructure or adequate staff or storage facility.  Presently 89 children are registered with the school. It is atrocious to find that the state, district, and block monitoring authorities, mid-day meals administrators, district education officer, block education officer and block resource person have never visited this school.  So far, only 55-60 per cent of allocated money has been utilised.
On that fateful day, the children were served soya beans, rice and potatoes. When the children complained of some odd taste, the headmistress rebuked them. Later, the police said that a forensic report confirmed that the cooking oil contained very toxic level of monocrotophos, an agricultural pesticide.

The initial response from the state government was shocking when the Education Minister of Bihar PK Shahi stated, ‘It is a very daunting task to provide freshly cooked quality meals in 73,000 schools.’ The minister also hinted at the involvement of opposition RJD in the tragedy though he did not make any direct reference. Does it remind one of the ‘foreign hand theories of Indira Gandhi for every failure of the Congress?  Now, even the chief minister Nitish Kumar and others have joined the chorus and hint at sabotage theory. They allege that the husband of the headmistress of the school, who has been now arrested, has links with the RJD. The JD(U) also alleges that the RJD and the BJP have combined together in attacking the government.

The RJD chief Lalu Prasad has made a virulent attack on Nitish pointing out that it was his government’s failure. This incident has given him a handle to attack Nitish as Lalu is fighting a battle for survival in the state.

The BJP, which was the partner in the government until May, has suddenly started playing the role of the opposition. The BJP finds the Bihar government lacking in governance forgetting that till now it was a partner with the JD(U). The BJP is looking at the 2014 elections and it is clueless whether the separation form the JD(U) is going to help the party and also whether the Modi magic would work in the caste- ridden Bihar.

The Congress-led UPA, which was trying to lure the JDU), has distanced itself from the scandal, blaming the state government for the tragedy. The Congress was all out to woo Nitish till now hoping for the JD(U) support in Parliament and also for a possible post-poll alliance after 2014 elections.
The Bihar tragedy should be a wake up call to have a relook at the mid-day meal scheme. No doubt that the children who ate the poisoned platter were victims of carelessness and callousness and the Bihar government, which is the implementer of the scheme, has much to answer.  Nitish Kumar also has to accept the blame and punish those who were guilty. He should take up on an urgent basis to streamline the mid-day meal system so that tragedies of this kind are averted. We need to have a stronger system of checks and balances, and a system of accountability as well.

The sad thing is that while there is a race for populist programmes, the ruling as well as the opposition parties never make mid-day meals their political agenda. They do not play any constructive role in its management and improvement of any welfare schemes though they take political mileage and advantage of such issues. Political parties should learn a lesson or two that they can’t come to power stamping on the bodies of the victims. People can see their vote bank politics and stay away from them sooner than later. 
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