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School Tragedy Puts Focus On Poor Health Of India's Children

We're following the tragedy in India where more than 20 children died Wednesday after eating tainted food at their school as part of their midday meal program.

This is a stark contrast to the stories of India's economic rise that have dominated headlines for the past decade. Many in India have been lifted from poverty, and the middle class has greatly expanded, as have the ranks of millionaires and billionaires. Yet extreme poverty is still a problem, and India has not been as successful as some other developing countries when it comes to reducing childhood illnesses and mortality.

By some estimates, more than 40 percent of Indian children are underweight. As the chart below shows, India's mortality rates for children under 5 (per 1,000 live births) have come down more slowly when compared with countries like China and South Africa.

Wednesday's tragedy occurred in Bihar state, which is home to more than 100 million people and is one of India's poorest states.

Nationwide, the midday meal program has been praised, but it has been rife with problems in Bihar and some other states. This is from the Indian government's own 2010 report:

"Overall, in Bihar lack of proper planning and absence of proper coordination between Bihar State Food Corporation and district level officers has resulted in erratic supply of funds and foodgrain. Schools generally do not receive quota of foodgrain in a planned manner on a monthly basis, as a result of which a few schools were overstocked resulting in breeding of insects."

The school lunch program is offered across much of the country. It benefits mainly India's poor. For instance, according to the government report, the average annual income of the households for beneficiary children in Bihar was about $400; about a third of the parents in Bihar cannot read or write.

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