Snapshots of a poisoned future
It has been exactly a month since 23 tender lives were lost as children from a school in Gandaman village of Bihar died due to poisoning of the
mid-day meals served at school.
shares poignant shots from the village, capturing the sadness and sombre mood that prevails after the tragedy.
16 August 2013 -
Governments are prone to developing schemes, presumably with the intent to demonstrate their interest in welfare. Let us deliver education free to children below
the age of fourteen. Let us give girls a bicycle so they can get to school easily. Let us give all children a free hot meal for lunch, because this addresses
their malnutrition while also serving as an incentive for the poor to send their children to school.
These well-intentioned schemes themselves appear eerily diabolical, however, when for example we hear that this hot mid-day meal caused the deaths of 23 children
who ate it, as it contained poison. This is what happened in Gandaman village of Saran district, Bihar on 16 July. A forensic report released several days after
the tragedy showed that the chemical monocrotophos had been found in the oil and in samples of the froth from the mouth of one of the children. This is a banned
substance in several countries, but is used in pesticides in India.
The level of monocrotophos found was five times more than what is found in average pesticides. "The expiration from the children was so strong when they came into
the hospital that it fogged up the glass panes," said Amar Kant Jha, the Superintendent of Patna Medical College and Hospital where the children were finally
This was after their parents had tried their luck at medical facilities in Masrakh, and then in Chhapra. None of these hospitals were able to correctly diagnose
what the children were suffering from, and the tortured children had to then travel ninety kilometres to Patna. there, they were put on a massive treatment of
atropine and the anti-poison PAM. Jha says that they do get a few cases every month of poisonings due to pesticide. A senior police official who was part of the
initial investigation said, "We allow chemicals of such toxicity to be sold and used, as we try to aid farming. But it doesn't occur to us to ensure that
peripheral hospitals are stocked with basic medicines like atropine to deal with these poisonings."
The death of the children of Gandaman has also meant the death of 23 dreams and hopes of what education could have done for these families. A sizable chunk of Gandamans next generation is no more.
Corruption eats into meals
In the Union Budget released for this year, the government has allocated Rs.13,215 crores for the mid-day meal scheme. The scheme suffers from many problems;
moreover, it appears that much of this money is being poorly utilised. A study released by the Center for Policy Research identifies poor record keeping, limited
human resources, lack of information flow and coordination across all levels of government, and weak monitoring and grievance redress systems as some of the
reasons that affect the transfer of food grains and funds. These hiccups often mean that mid-day meal providers will compromise on quality, time or scrutiny in
order to simply fulfill their responsibilities.
The death of the children of Gandaman has also meant the death of 23 dreams and hopes of what education could have done for these families. A sizable chunk of
Gandaman's next generation is no more. Twenty five others, including one of the cooks who prepared the meal, were critically ill and were in hospital for many
days before they could be released. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, while travelling through Gandaman in Bihar on assignment, I saw and felt for myself
the abject despondence, sadness and anger that hung over the village.
Picture credits: Anoo Bhuyan
What followed the tragedy was silence from the Bihar government and every attempt to use the school principal as a red herring, and to deflect responsibility. The
chief minister claimed to have a foot injury. When inquiries were made at his office, an official said that he had broken the small toe on one of his feet. This
was the debilitation that was keeping him from reaching out to the villagers. The police were unable to trace the teacher in charge of the school (at whose house
the raw food was stored, and from where the poisoned oil is suspected to have come) for several days.
In the meantime, national media launched an intense inquiry into mid-day meals around the country and conditions were found to be far from ideal. Reports came in
from several states, of children falling ill after their mid-day meals, making one wonder if this was routine or coincidental. In Gandaman itself, one fact
overrides everything else in the aftermath of the tragedy - there are fewer children playing in the evenings at the end of the school day.
It is often claimed that Bihar has grown tremendously over the last two terms of the current chief minister Nitish Kumar. This tragedy doesn't fit that narrative.
Nor do many other facts help. The rural poverty line stands at Rs.26 per day, according to recent Planning Commission releases, which places Bihar sixth from the
bottom among the states. This data also says 34 per cent of Bihar's overall population is below the poverty line.
When it comes to the mid-day meal in particular, a 2010 study by the Planning Commission showed 22 per cent in Bihar did not receive adequate food - the highest
percentage in the country. 72 per cent of the beneficiaries of the scheme said the quality of food served was poor. The research admitted that due to a lack of
water resources in some of the schools surveyed, water from nearby ponds is used to cook meals, making it "difficult to maintain hygiene."
Twenty three children in one village paid the ultimate price for the sum of all these failures.