On the first anniversary of the terrible tragedy that claimed 23 children's lives in Saran district in Bihar due to pesticide poisoning of their school mid day meal, a new report released by India For Safe Food points out that government is not acting decisively on the big culprit here: pesticides, which are not inevitable in farming.

The incident on July 16th 2013 shook the country and indeed, the world. The Mid Day Meal scheme is after all the government's flagship program to keep children of this country alive and healthy - however, it appears that such food is unsafe, especially for children. One year on, India For Safe Food (IFSF), a campaign platform that works on food and environmental safety with regard to agri technologies like pesticides and GMOs, came together to release a report called "Serving Death? - A case for safe food for children in India", asking a central question around whether India has learnt the right lessons from the Bihar tragedy or not, so that other such incidents as well as other poisonings can be prevented.

The report, which compiles official and civil society information related to toxic effects of pesticides, shows that children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of pesticides and calls for toxin-free food to be ensured for all food schemes meant for children, to begin with. The new report makes recommendations to governments, based on 'correct lessons' learnt from the tragedy. It also reminds the government that the UN FAO had also recommended the urgent withdrawal of highly hazardous pesticides right after the incident.

One year ago on July 16th 2013, in a small village Dharmashati Gandaman in Saran district in Bihar, 23 children, aged between 4 and 12 years died (with 16 dying on the spot) due to poisoned mid-day meal served to them. It has been subsequently forensically confirmed that the cooking oil used that day contained 'very toxic' levels of monocrotophos, an organophosphate pesticide. "Serving Death?: A case for safe food" is a report to remind the nation that pesticide poisoning of children is acute as well as chronic, and that this is an avoidable situation. In fact, lack of action is unconscionable.

Using examples of innovative approaches to organic/safe food being served to children in schools, both by civil society and government efforts, the report exhorts the government to ensure that food schemes for children should be used to ensure that the environment and food of children is toxin-free, by replicating and scaling out these successful models and suggestions.

"The Bihar incident involving children and pesticides is not the first such incident. There are reports of other incidents of food poisoning of school meals in the past, including due to pesticide spray drift. Pesticide poisonings have been rampant, unacknowledged and not-acted-upon including in the case of adults and including when it comes to acute poisoning, while there is no good assessment of the situation with chronic poisoning. One of the reasons for the current sorry state of affairs is the faulty regulatory framework that we have in India. We urge the government to recast the Pesticides Management Bill pending in the Parliament, so that the central focus of regulation reverts back to ensuring safety to human health and environment", said Kavitha Kuruganti of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture).

Rachna Arora of India for Safe Food said, "It is indeed unfortunate that we are jeopardising the well being of future generations by ignoring warning bells that have been ringing for a long time. THE ICDS and MDM guidelines issued after the Bihar tragedy do not even mention the risks emanating from pesticides, despite Monocrotophos being nailed as the reason for the poisoning! No action has been taken on FAO's recommendations to speed up the withdrawal of dangerous pesticides. The least that should be done is to ensure that at least children have access to safe food in all government schemes".

The report presents global scientific evidence on how children are highly vulnerable to pesticides due to a variety of reasons.

Dr. GPI Singh of 'Doctors for Food and Bio-Safety', and a public health expert said, "World over, there is an increasing realisation that children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides. Children are being 'born polluted', as studies have shown. We have a special duty to protect our children from the harmful effects of pesticides".

It is now well established that alternatives to synthetic pesticides are indeed possible and present in agriculture, for successful pest and disease management. In Andhra Pradesh, Non Pesticidal Management of crops (NPM) has been scaled up to lakhs of acres by the government through a programme called Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA), through the involvement of women's self help groups and community level resource persons to provide extension support for this shift.

Dr. GV Ramanjaneyulu from Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) that pioneered this effort, added, "The CMSA experience has proven that pesticides are not inevitable in agriculture. Evaluation reports including by scientific bodies are showing that this creates a win-win situation for everyone, with farmers' net incomes improving even as safe food for consumers is produced. There is no reason why the food schemes cannot tie up with organic and NPM producer collectives to ensure that at least children are fed with safe food".

Despite tragedies like the one in Bihar, there is no attempt from governments, unfortunately, to acknowledge the negative impact that pesticides have, and to supply safe and organic produce to children. Some state governments and NGOs are trying to provide pesticide free food for children in mid day meal and ICDS schemes through innovative methods like kitchen gardens etc,; however these are being done at a small scale and there is an urgent need to scale out these efforts.

The report therefore, recommends that the government - Improve its regulatory mechanism for pesticides and takes immediate steps to follow FAO recommendations to withdraw highly hazardous pesticides, in addition to using the opportunity of the pending Pesticides Management Bill to address lacunae in regulation; Increase investment in chemical free farming and Ensure pesticide-free safe food for children in all government schemes including ICDS and MDM. Read the complete reports here