23 children aged 5 to 12 have died in the northeastern state of Bihar in India after eating a school lunch of lentils, vegetables and rice earlier this week and at least 20 remain sick in hospitals; the school’s cook, who had complained to the principal that the cooking oil smelled odd and been told to still use it, has also died. Officials think that the oil had been stored in a container previously used for insecticides.
India’s universal school lunch program feeds 120 million children and reports of food poisoning from eating contaminated meals prepared in kitchens with poor hygiene have not been uncommon. But the program is credited with nutrition to children from impoverished families and increasing school attendance. The deaths of the Bihar students reveal how India’s sacrificing environmental concerns for the sake of economic growth is taking a huge toll on its children: nearly 25 percent of child mortality cases in India are the result of environmental degradation, according to a just-released report from the World Bank.
The report, Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges in India, makes it all too clear that India’s spectacular economic growth has come in the form of severe environmental degradation. This is already dragging down the country’s growth, costing it approximately 5.7 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product or $80 million per year.
Lack of concern for the environment is also putting the health of millions at risk. Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels has increased cardiopulmonary disease among adults living in urban areas. Children under 5 in India are prone to catching diseases resulting from a poor water supply, sanitation and inadequate hygiene — more than 600,000 died in 2010 from pneumonia and diarrhea, according to UNICEF. Nearly 500,000 children and women in India die every year from indoor pollution, mostly due to acute respiratory infections. 75 percent of children who live in high-traffic areas have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
Rather than attending school, more than 12 million children also labor in agricultural fields where they are exposed to pesticides. Many (including children as young as 6) are at work in tanneries and leather factories, making shoes amid dangerous machinery and chemicals.
What India must do is to promote green growth in the form of developing, and implementing, a sustainable energy policy that will ultimately be to the benefit of its citizens. As Muthukumara S. Mani, a senior environmental economist at the World Bank and the lead author of the report, says:
Grow now and clean up later will not be environmentally sustainable for India in the long run. We believe that a low-emission, resource-efficient greening of the economy is possible at a very low cost in terms of GDP growth.
In particular, the report emphasizes that green growth is affordable. A 10 to 30 percent reduction in particulate emissions by 2030 will lower India’s GDP only modestly. The real savings would come in the form of health benefits to all segments of Indian society; these can be measured in billions of dollars saved as a result of lowering risks and damage to people’s health.
India is also a “hotspot of unique biodiversity and ecosystems” and a push to protect natural resources from development and contamination can go a long way to helping to preserve them.
As officials in India urge cooks and teachers to test all the food in the free lunch served to children, parents in Bihar have brought the exhumed bodies of their hastily buried children outside schools. Government buildings have been stoned as allegations of corruption and mismanagement surface; the school’s principal, who has disappeared, reportedly bought the cooking oil from a store that her husband owns. Children have been refusing to eat their free lunches and dumping them in the trash.
Bihar is not only one of India’s poorest states; it also one of its most populated. There is a need for the free school lunch program. But unless the Indian government makes the environmental a priority and cleans up its school lunches, its urban and its rural areas and its waterways, it will only compromise its children and its future.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons