On Tuesday morning, Rahul (10) bade goodbye to his mother and set off for school. By Thursday he was dead.
The death toll in the tragedy rose to 23 on Thursday after the death of seven-year-old Shiv, who had died earlier in Chapra itself, was taken into account.
The courtyard before the Gandaman primary school in the Mashrakh block of Chapra, where children played, has now turned into a graveyard. (Children are not cremated.) Tall heaps of mud mark the spot where the children, who died in the mid-day meal tragedy, have been buried.
The victims’ parents, meanwhile, flail about in deep agony. Deepu’s parents are not able to forgive themselves for scolding their daughter and forcing her to go back to school on that fateful day. “She came home before lunch,” says her father Ajay Kumar. “She was refusing to go back to school. My wife and I scolded her and told her to get right back. She wanted Rs. 2. She went after we gave it to her. How would we have known that she would never come back,” a distraught Mr. Kumar asks.
Gandaman, meanwhile, is inconsolable. Heart-rending cries of parents are heard from several homes as teary-eyed villagers make futile attempts to console them.
“Babu [small child] where have you gone? This is your home. Why have you left me,” Jaimala, the sister of eight-year-old Mamta, cries. Clutching Mamta’s photo she weeps and weeps, standing at the threshold of their house. “She was the apple of our eye,” says Mala, another sister.
Kajal’s father Ramanand Rai lovingly recalls what his daughter did that morning. “She said, ‘Papa will you comb my hair?’ I combed her hair and sent her to school. Had I not sent her she would have been alive today,” he says.
The cooking stoves in all the bereaved homes are lying cold since Tuesday. Rahul Ram’s mother Malti Devi has been rendered speechless with grief as she stares into nothingness. Shocked and ill after the loss, she is being administered saline. Her husband Satendar Kumar was away on work in Ludhiana when the tragedy struck. He called home after watching television and learnt that his son was no more.
Exhausted by the relentless crying, Chanda Devi asks for some water. She lost two sons in the tragedy. “I thought they would study and make something of their lives. Had I known something like this would have happened, I would never have sent them,” she says.
Even animals were reported to have succumbed to the deadly poison that took so many lives. “A crow and a goat that ate the leftover food also died,” villagers say.
The tragedy has struck fear among all parents in Gandaman and the neighbouring villages. Parents are refusing to send their children to school anymore, preferring illiteracy over such a tragic end. Ajay Kumar, a farm labourer whose daughter died, is refusing to send his younger daughter to school. “Why should I? Should I send her to die? We will feed her. When she grows up, she will survive the way we have. She is not going to study.”
“My other children will remain illiterate like us. Why should we send them to schools if such things happen,” Mr. Ramanand Rai asks. Manoj, another villager, says: “No child is going to school. People are saying we would rather have our children tend to cattle than go to school. At least you have them before your eyes.”
Those with better means of income are planning to shift their wards to private schools.
Devastated parents are, meanwhile, demanding death for the perpetrators of this tragedy and a Central Bureau of Investigation probe.
In the light of the incident, the Bihar government is planning to introduce a protocol for teachers and students on handling such incidents.
The protocol will make mandatory the availability of first-aid items in schools, and train teachers on how to move children to hospitals when they fall sick suddenly.
In addition, the State is also planning to revive education committees where local self-help groups, anganwadi workers and ASHAs will participate.
Keywords: mid-day meals poisoning, Bihar school tragedy, midday meal deaths, Chapra district, Nitish Kumar government, organic phosphorus content, food poisoning, Mid Day Meal Scheme, universal primary education, man-made tragedies, food safety standards