Much of India still has problems with basic sanitation. The country's bad roads mean it can take a long time for food to reach rural areas, increasing the
likelihood of the food spoiling in the process. Refrigeration and food storage also leave something to be desired -- it's possible the lunch was stored next to
the chemicals and was cross-contaminated somehow, explained Michael Kugelman, an India expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.
2) Corruption and a lack of oversight
Theft and corruption in anti-poverty programs is a widespread problem. Last year, Bloomberg discovered that $14.5
billion in food aid was pilfered by corrupt politicians in the state of Uttar Pradesh and sold to local traders at market rates. The New York Times noted that NGOs charged with executing
charity efforts like the lunch program often cut corners to save money. In this case, the school's head apparently "fled" the school after the contamination was
discovered, which, at best, gives the appearance of impropriety.
India's weak government oversight also means that lax food safety sometimes goes unpunished.
"You can have situations where a food inspector will come to a food prep area and cite someone for violating policies and hygiene, but they can be paid off
and will go away, and people will be preparing food as they used to," Kugelman said.
3) The scale of the operation
Much of India's population struggles to find enough food -- almost a billion people there eat less than the government recommends, and 21 percent of all adults and
almost half of all children under 5 are malnourished.
The school-lunch program, which was enacted with the goal of reducing malnutrition, sought to feed 120 million children -- a herculean task for any nation,
but especially so for one that still lacks strong government monitoring. As the the exasperated minister of human resource development in Bihar told the New York Times:
"It is just not possible to taste meals in all the 73,000 schools before children eat the food."
I asked Kugelman if incidents like this mean India isn't the rapidly-modernizing "success story" we're always hearing about.
Not necessarily, he said, but "this amplifies one of the most important realities in India today -- for all of its successes and achievements over the last
20 years, it's still a developing, extremely impoverished country in which modernity has not become all-inclusive."
This time last year, India was hit by a massive power outage that impacted 670 million people, becoming largest blackout in history and a symbol of
government negligence and poor infrastructure.
"It just shows that for all the progress that's been made," Kugelman said, "There's a long way to go."