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Last week, 23 children – some as young as five, none older than 12 – died after eating the free lunch provided at their school in a village in the state of Bihar in northern India. Another two dozen remain hospitalized. They’d reportedly complained about the oddly blackened look of the meal, the bitter taste. But their principal insisted that they finish their food – a dish of beans, potatoes and vegetables – as good children should.
The principal, who had fled, was arrested yesterday. There’s no word yet on her husband who also vanished – a grocer who supplied the school kitchen with what now appears to be cooking oil stored in pesticide containers. The obvious skimming of government money provided for school lunches, the charges of engrained corruption and slippery politics, and the absolutely needless deaths of young (and trusting) children has set off a round of accusations and recriminations in India. And also some more deliberate copy-cat poisonings, such as an incident yesterday near the city of Bhopal in which a man dropped rat poison into food being prepared for 50 students at a hostel (who, thankfully, refused to eat it due to the smell).
Lethal pesticides and other poisons are less tightly regulated in India – and many countries in Southeast Asia – than they are here in the United States. The resulting easy access, the easy familiarity, are among the reasons that mass poisonings remain more common there than in our corner. Let’s not forget that also, last week, 22 people died after eating a poisoned dinner in Pakistan. The murders were related to a feud between two brothers. Those circumstances also play into small scale poisonings that often receive little attention, such as this barely noticed story from June in which a mother killed herself and her three children with poison, or this April incident, meriting a bare three newspaper paragraphs, in which the owner of a private school in Binkaner, India raped two young girls in his care and poisoned them when they threatened to tell.
You may not have heard of monocrotophos; it’s been banned in the United States for years. (It’s also banned in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, the Dominican Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Syria, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen.) The Pesticide Action Network reports that it was also banned for use on vegetables in India in 2006 due to high residue levels but is “easily available and widely used on them.”
According to the WHO, India has found it difficult to enforce the 2006 monocrotophos ban for vegetables because it is used on so many crops, especially cotton. The country considered a universal ban but was apparently persuaded otherwise by a discussions (read, suspected bribes) involving pesticide industry representatives. Would such a ban have saved those poor children in Bihar last week? Of course, not. There are countless other poisons to use either mistakenly or deliberately in any country, especially one that keeps the bar low on consumer education and protection.
But the fact that the killing agent was this one, this macabre pesticide outlawed by countries including India’s neighbors, speaks to the curious comfort with lethal compounds the country so far maintains. It speaks to an indifference to those without money and power – poor farmers, poor children, birds and animals trapped in the cast of a toxic net. It undoubtedly speaks as well to the charges of corruption and politics that followed the mounting toll of dead children. Because the truth about public education and solidly enforced regulation is that these are tools of equality. They respect the least powerful as well as the most.
The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the state of Florida, alleging disabled children there have been systemically segregated and isolated in nursing homes when they should have been eligible for home health care.
The suit alleges Florida violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that the state provide “reasonable accommodations” for parents of children with disabilities.
Federal investigators also noticed that disabled children in nursing homes seemed banished to the second floor in one facility and blocked from the outdoors by a smoking section for the elderly in another.
According to the complaint, Florida reduced funding for and access to home medical care for disabled children, failed to prevent them from inappropriately being placed in nursing homes and failed to offer them an opportunity to return to the community.
“Today’s Obama administration action shows that Washington is not interested in helping families improve but instead is determined to file disruptive lawsuits with the goal of taking over control and operation of Florida’s Medicaid and disability programs,” said the state agency’s secretary Elizabeth Dudek.