|Approximately one month ago, reports of a deadly food poisoning outbreak in the Bihar State region of India were being circulated. By the end of the day, 25 children in one province had died and 35 hospitalized in another. While the investigation revealed the culprit to be the storage practices of the school in question, the national India school lunch program– credited for feeding 120 million Indian children– faced immense scrutiny. On the heels of this devastating shortfall in the program, India has not changed course in its pursuit to feed its increasingly malnourished population. In the coming days, the Indian Parliament is set to vote, and likely pass, a measure geared to guaranteeing 800 million with sustenance.
It may come as a shock to many, but India has had a long history of guaranteeing food for their youth. Going as back as far as 1925, the Mid-Day Meal Program has grown from providing food to disadvantaged children of the Madras Municipal Corporation to feeding 120 million across the country.
Amid the food poisoning meltdown, the program faced an uncertain future. Despite impressive economic growth in the past decade, India is still a fledgling democracy. With democratic principles still in the process of taking root, corruption at all levels of the government abounds; for many, the cost of this corruption outweighs the benefits of the program.
Despite its detractors, the failings in oversight over the school lunch program have not stunted India’s view of sustenance as a human right. For decades, India’s subsidized grain program has acted the cornerstone of India’s economic development. To date, the program provides upwards of 400 million low income Indians with grain, sugar, and kerosene. With the upcoming vote, however, the Indian Parliament aims bring this program to 800 million.
While implementing such program—the most extensive and expensive in the world, to be sure—is a laudable pursuit, academics and economists have brought the tenability of the program into question.
For many, the massive dispersion of resources necessary for the program bring with it institutionalized waste and fraud. Referencing the shortfalls, Bharat Ramaswami, professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, stated, “More than 40 percent of the food never makes it to the people it is intended to help.” He continued, “It’s a system that’s full of holes. It’s corrupt and just more costly than a private operation.”
For the programs critics, far more resources end up in the black market than its proponents like to admit. Much like any new program, policy makers argue, it will have its shortfalls at first. Creating the infrastructure is the necessary first step in any program—especially one of this magnitude.
While proponents of the extension view July’s food poisoning as an isolated incident, they have addressed the systemic nature from which it arose. Under the new bill, among guaranteeing each low income citizen a monthly subsidy 11 pounds of low-cost grain, the program also codifies the right of each Indian child free lunch that meets rigorous safety standards.
The Washington Post reports, “Some 120 million schoolchildren already receive a free lunch in India’s public schools, but they now will have the legal right to one prepared in accordance with health and safety codes, according to Sakshi Balani, an analyst with PRS Legislative Research, a nonprofit group that follows legislative and policy issues in the Indian Parliament.”
While only time will tell whether or not the program will prove effectual—so long as corruption and fraud can be averted— it is clear India is on the right path to eliminating hunger in the country.