Poisoned in Primary

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Political conspiracy theories abound as the headmistress considered responsible for the mid-day meal deaths at a school in Bihar absconds

It was waiting to happen. On 16 July in Dharmasati Gandaman village in Bihar’s Saran district, as many as 23 school children—all aged below 12—lost their lives after consuming a tainted free mid-day meal. If it hadn’t been this school, it could have been any of the 73,000 in the state, for death and deprivation for the poor in Bihar come free.

No one takes notice until the number of victims goes into double digits. Insects, frogs, centipedes, rats and reptiles are regular sights at free mid-day meals in schools; little children have regularly been reported to be falling sick, hospitalised and even dying. Poverty seems to be their only fault, malnourishment their lone feature. It was a story waiting to make headlines in every nook and cranny of the state. Unfortunately, it pitched Dharmasati Gandaman first.

The village, named after local deity Dharmasati, is like any other in Bihar. Of about 400 households, most are of Dalits and Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). The young men have migrated elsewhere to seek livelihoods, leaving behind little children, wives and ageing parents to confront poverty and malnourishment, hope and despair every day.

The tragedy appears to be traceable to a small-time politician who manipulated government schemes meant for the poor, and his wife, headmistress of the village school, who has allegedly been merrily gobbling up most of the funds and food meant for the school.

Locating the school is not difficult—it is run in a local ‘community centre’, a dilapidated building in a corner of the village. There is hardly anything worth calling a school: one 250 sq ft hall with plaster peeling off the walls, two door-less entrances and four open windows. The classroom has no fan, no bulb and a blackboard half turned grey-white. Broken pieces of two plastic chairs and a table lie outside in the campus near the lone hand pump.

In the verandah outside the classroom is a makeshift earthen stove, used to prepare the mid-day meal for the 125 students enrolled in the school. Inside the classroom are strewn books of Hindi, mathematics and English, a pencil, a ball-point pen with plastic bags and a pair of purple slippers. But most compelling are the aluminium plates routinely used by the students for food, and along with each, an iridescent plastic bag. The school was shifted here in the year 2010. Classes for students from the first to the fifth class ran in a single hall, all at the same time, taught by the same teacher.

The school has just two teachers, including the absconding headmistress, Meena Devi. The other teacher, Kalpana Devi, has been on maternity leave for three months. Two more women, Manju Devi and Pano Devi, are on contract to cook food for a meagre remuneration of Rs 1,000 each per month.

Manju Devi ate the contaminated food and was hospitalised, while Pano Devi, being on fast that unfortunate day, escaped the tragedy. Her three children, however, could not suppress their hunger and now battle for life in hospital. The principal has not been eating school food, and did not on that day either. The free mid-day meal is, after all, meant for the poor and the principal is clearly not among the poor in the village.

The school in Dharmasati Gandaman village is not alone in these features—there are over 8,000 such schools in Bihar.

According to a Planning Commission report released in 2010 on the mid-day meal scheme in Bihar, only 47 per cent of schools in the state are housed in their own concrete buildings while only 43 per cent have their own kitchen and their condition appears unhygienic. Further, according to the report, only 50 per cent of schools have a facility to store the grain they get under the scheme.

The state government, which recently claimed a growth rate for the state as high as 14 per cent in the current year, returned over Rs 450 crore of the funds allocated to Bihar for the mid-day meal scheme to the Central Government during the period 2006-2010.

The mid-day meal scheme took off in Bihar in 2005 when current Chief Minister Nitish Kumar took charge of the state, promising the moon to its people. He highlighted Bihar’s amazing turnaround with ever-increasing figures of growth and social indices, winning national and international accolades and awards for bringing Bihar’s growth up—or, rather, projecting it as—just behind Gujarat’s and China’s.

It amazed the state’s people, too, when the government admitted that the number of poor in Bihar had increased by 500,000—almost 50 per cent of households in the state do not have toilets and the state’s literacy rate still stands at 63.8 per cent against the national average of 74 per cent.

The beneficiaries of the mid-day meal scheme in Bihar’s 73,000 government schools are varied, but 68 per cent of them are EBCs and 18 per cent, Dalits. Over 50 per cent of these children belong to families dependent on agricultural labour. A survey report by the AN Sinha Institute for Social Studies, Patna, revealed a pathetic state of affairs in the implementation of the mid-day meal scheme in Bihar, finding that stakeholders such as students, parents and community members were not happy with the quality of meals served under the programme.

Dharmasati Gandaman villagers had complained to the district’s Education Officer about the poor quality of food being served in the school under the scheme. But nothing came of it, as nothing ever does of such complaints by poor people anywhere in the state. No one took notice, and the village lost one-third of its children in one day.

“The food children often brought home from the school was not even fit for animals. It was always stinking and infested with insects. But what to do? [Can the] poor [be] choosers?” asks Rangeela Prasad Yadav whose family lost one child, Mamata Kumari, and has seven others in hospital as a result of the contaminated food.

The cook Manju Devi is his daughter-in-law. It is common knowledge that most of the school’s students take the meal home to share with other family members. Student Sujit Kumar, too, had taken his share home on 16 July. But he vomited after the first bite, and served the rest to his goat. The goat fainted after a few minutes and Sujit alerted his family members who in turn informed other villagers. But by the time they could reach the school, Sujit’s sister Puja Kumari had eaten her meal and had to be admitted to hospital. She could not have survived had Sujit’s uncle not taken her to the hospital on his motorbike, covering 50 km to reach the district hospital in Chhapra.

The villagers are now divided. While some see a ‘political conspiracy’ behind the tragedy, others aren’t buying it. But all rue the silence of Nitish Kumar. “Nitish Kumar, who often trumpets his government’s commitment to the welfare of Dalits and [EBCs] like us, has not even bothered to visit us,” says villager Terash Prasad Yadav, two of whose daughters, Anshu and Khusboo Kumari, have died while a third, Roshni Kumari, is in hospital. His wife, unable to bear the shock, has fallen ill and is surviving on a saline water drip.

Indeed, ever since the incident, CM Nitish Kumar has maintained a mysterious silence, though his education minister P K Shahi has declared the incident a conspiracy by a rival political party to defame the JD-U government. His department’s principal secretary, Amarjeet Sinha, has been saying all along that it was not a case of food poisoning, but simply of ‘poisoning’.

“Whether it’s deliberate or it happened by mistake is a matter of inquiry, which has already been ordered,” said Sinha. A few days later, a Forensic Science Laboratory report by the Bihar Police claimed it was monocrotophos— a poisonous insecticide of the organophosphorous group that was found in the food—which proved fatal for the school students. Officials believe the incident was caused by ‘criminal negligence’ on the part of the headmistress, at whose residence the food stock was stored along with agricultural pesticides. An FIR has been lodged against her, but she—along with her husband Arjun Yadav and other members of her family—is absconding, as Open goes to press.