The 23 innocent school children in Bihar, who ate their lunch but paid a price for it by dying as a consequence, is no doubt a shocker. That the school had no storage, no kitchen, and virtually no quality concern, is patent from all accounts pouring out of that state.
The worst, however, is that the state invited it by poor concern for the midday meals programme as evidenced by the non-utilisation of the funds meant for building kitchens and buying utensils. What the Centre provided was parked in fixed deposits to earn interest.
The sum was not a mere piffle but all of Rs 463 cr, which remained unused from 2006 to 2012, earning interests. The state of the midday meals and the infrastructure to work the scheme was not the concern why bank instruments were taken out but because the auditors said it was wrong.
The Times of India reported yesterday, the state was unable to spend it. Therefore, the Rs 463 cr was returned to the provider, the Centre. Another Rs 207 cr, meant for improving middle school education and bettering infrastructure was also simply lying around in banks till 2012.
Today, another report points out that Bihar has found that it can spend the money after all, and the Centre has sent back Rs 100 cr. This transaction is because, Bihar is suddenly was now “ready and keen to build kitchen sheds” and “already identified the schools” which needed the facility. This is a rather sudden waking up.
Governing Bihar has never been easy. Even for Nitish Kumar, the much lauded good-governance man, who inherited what can be categorised as the country’s badlands, where past rulers cared little for the poor except to use them only as their benefactors: a vote machine, and leveraging caste and making money.
Nitish Kumar is seen as having done well, despite a bad inheritance, and perhaps because of that. He has achieved a growth trajectory higher than Gujarat’s and the national average. He cleaned it up of big crime, built roads, and ensured the job guarantee scheme worked to cut down the poor’s out-migration.
Kumar was cited for his bottom-up growth model to become a poster boy for development in contrast to the top-down model of Narendra Modi where the poor had to wait for the crumbs. Year after year, media houses held him up to be the best performing chief minister among all states in the country.
It was routine for the man with the stubble to walk up, all modesty, to receive awards at televised events, with that gentle smile, with a suggestion that he was either literally chewing cud or some betel nuts; one does know what exactly.
He was judged on his perceived performance, especially after the poor status of the state – socially, economically, and everything else that is dependent on them – for decades due to avaricious politicians before him. Like they say, he was judged for the growth numbers on a low base, which in itself is tough.
The halo he wore is now either dimming or lost. The single reason for the demise of his image is the deaths of the 23 children when he is the state’ steward. Politically, it has come at an inopportune moment but that is his problem. It is hard to brush aside this view. There has been callousness in managing the free-lunch programme.
It could be argued that an isolated event in Bihar ought not to be held against the state or its chief minister. But what made the whole thing worse for him was the disclosure of the unspent funds.
The Chhapra school and the inadequacies – carelessness in storing the items, the refusal to heed fears, absence of a kitchen etc. – are manifestation of how not to run a scheme where a rotted vegetable can poison the whole school. What is dished out is as important as how well it is given.
It could not be the case that Bihar was so flush with funds that what had come from the Centre was a surplus that could be prudently put away in a banking instrument. Nitish Kumar himself has been crying hoarse that Bihar needed a special package from the Centre because it was backward and developmental backlog needed to be erased.
It needed him to make a big political move, snapping his ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party and stepingp out of the National Democratic Alliance to find that the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress was receptive to his plea for long for special funds to run his state better.
The Times of India report is explicit that the other areas for which funds provided went into a savings instrument included those meant for hospitals. “The Bihar government seems to have also had an uncaring approach towards education spending. Midday meals and education are intertwined.
Though there are no similar mishaps – though it appears that this was something waiting to happen because of the callousness of the governance mechanisms – as in Chhapra, and going by the level of development in all spheres in Bihar, the midday meal school arrangement would be nowhere near ideal in that state. It needed funds, and better implementation.
One heard on television that Bihar, post-Chhapra, wants to appoint 67,000 cooks for the schools run by the government, and build 7,600 kitchens – just sheds, one presumes, given the ways all governments works – and yet, provided funds remained unspent because they could not be spent.
Good governance is not mere sophisticated PR, and claims, as made out from time to time by Nitish Kumar’s critics that he bought a good Press for himself by abundant release of government advertisements in the state’s privately owned media.
Good governance is all about delivering, and it is at the cutting edge that a proper measure is arrived at.
In this, Nitish Kumar fell short. It is here that the claims of the bottom-up development model rings hollow simply because it failed on a crucial front which has a lot to do with improvement of the social indices. Next time he may not wear a smile when anyone praises him.