MASHRAKH (SARAN): The midday meal tragedy worsened on Wednesday with fatalities rising to 27 and suspicion mounting that the last meal eaten by the children may have been accidentally contaminated or, as Bihar’s education minister claimed, deliberately poisoned.
The Bihar government put the toll in what is becoming the country’s worst midday meal tragedy at 22. But villagers said angry parents and relatives had buried at least 27 bodies in front of the Government Primary School where the children had their midday meal on Tuesday.
Residents of Dharmashati Gandaman village of Saran district chose to bury the bodies in the school as a mark of protest. Villagers said the 27 buried children did not include those who died on way to Patna. While four children were declared brought dead at Patna Medical College & Hospital on Tuesday night, two children died on Wednesday.
State education minister Prashant Kumar Shahi said traces of organic phosphorous had been found in the food served to the kids, most of them below 10 years of age. “It is a criminal case of poisoning,” he said. Shahi alleged that the cooking ingredients came from a store run by the school principal Meena Devi’s husband Arjun Rai, whom he described as a member of a rival political party, an obvious reference to the RJD. The cook had told the principal that the mustard oil given to her to make soya curry had a foul smell, he said.
On Wednesday, cops and reporters found Meena Devi’s home locked and she had reportedly fled. The only other teacher in the school was said to be on leave.
As the Chhapra toll rose, another minor midday meal poisoning was reported from Navatolia Middle School, near Madhubani, where 50 children fell sick. Sources said a dead lizard was found in the food served to the kids.
There was no definitive narrative from the police on how the toxic food landed on the plates of the kids. The village itself remained virtually out of bounds for police and state officials, with violent protesters blocking roads to the area. The crowd set fire to four government vehicles, including two police jeeps. All the roads leading to Mashrakh remained clogged with trucks, tractors and JCB machines which were forcibly parked in the middle of the roads by villagers.
Heart-rending wails of women were heard over the din of protests from several houses when these reporters managed to reach the village around noon after crossing at least six blockades on foot. A woman was seen banging her head against the mound of earth under which her son Rahul was buried. Another group of women wailed inconsolably under a tree nearby.
According to villagers, the primary school, which opened only a couple of years ago, was running in a 20x15ft room that also served as a community hall for weddings. Midday meals were cooked in the small veranda by ‘sevika’ Pano Devi and ‘sevika’ Manju Devi. On Tuesday, Pano did not report for duty and the meal — rice and soya — was cooked by Manju. She and her two children also ate the meal.
Schoolbags, books, steel plates and gunny bags on which the children sat lay scattered in the lone classroom while some chairs and the table of headmistress and teacher were lying outside, smashed by angry protesters.
The villagers pleaded the midday meal scheme be done away with immediately. “As it is, poor quality rice and vegetables are brought for the children. Our complaints go unheeded. The withdrawal of the scheme will be in the interest of our children, our future generation. Please ask the government to oblige us,” said Pappu Singh whose neighbour lost his child in the tragedy.
Violent protests were also witnessed in Chhapra, the district HQ, where opposition parties — RJD, BJP and CPI(M-L) — had called a bandh on Wednesday. Several cases of arson and attack on government vehicles and buildings were reported from different parts of the town.
An alleged attempt to break open the gate of Chhapra jail was foiled by SDO A Q Ansari and ASP Ravindra Kumar who ordered lathicharge to disperse the crowd at Daroga Rai Chowk. RJD activists detained the Balia-Sealdah Express at Chhapra Kutchery station for hours.
Prabhunath Singh, newly elected RJD MP from neighbouring Maharajganj, alleged that many lives would have been saved had the district administration been sensitive towards the ailing children. “I arranged buses to carry the affected students to Chhapra hospital,” he claimed.