Government, Opposition play blame game as House is adjourned thrice

A discussion on the mid-day meal tragedy in the Bihar Assembly descended into a verbal joust with members making wild accusations and the government insisting on a political conspiracy angle to the incident.

In an apparent bid to push the blame for the incident on the Rashtriya Janata Dal (without naming it), Education Minister P.K. Shahi said the school principal’s husband, Arjun Rai, bought Monocrotophos, the poison found in the meal, two days before the tragedy.

“He is an influential political personality in the area. On July 14, he bought 250 ml of Monocrotophos from the Sidholia sugar mill for his brother Dhruv Rai. The purchase receipt even has his signature on it. Just one ml of the chemical is enough to kill 1,000 rats. The poison was mixed in the food as a result of a conspiracy. The next day Chapra was on the boil and the police was not allowed to reach the site,” Mr. Shahi told the House in his reply.

RJD MLA Abdul Bari Siddiqui, who called for a CBI probe into the incident, earlier moved an adjournment motion, demanding a discussion on the issue. The House saw three adjournments during the day, by the end of which the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RJD walked out.

Human error?

Although Mr. Rai is reported to have bought Monocrotophos, there is no suggestion of a conspiracy as evidence points to human error, authoritative sources told The Hindu. Mr. Rai and his family own five acres of land, for which 250 ml is the required quantity. Moreover, Monocrotophos is sold in sealed packs only in stores in the market. However, in sugar mills it is sold loose, as in this case. The mills also ensure supply of sugarcane from cultivators when they sell the pesticide to them.

“Why would he [Mr. Rai] buy it from a nearby mill and sign it if he had any mala fide intentions? This is not foul play. This only makes sure this is a case of human error. It is clear that Monocrotophos came from the principal’s house. Since it is poisonous it is always kept outside in the courtyard. The mid-day meal provisions were also kept there. It is entirely possible that the food was cooked in the pesticide, which was mistaken for mustard oil. Both have the same colour and Monocrotophos does not have a foul smell. They resemble each other to a great extent,” they said.

The JD(U)’s Manjeet Kumar Singh threw the House into disarray when he claimed that the poison came from Gujarat. Moreover, when he said there was a Gujarat-link to the Bodh Gaya blast as the timers came from that State the BJP protested angrily.

Leader of the Opposition Nand Kishore Yadav said the Chapra tragedy was not a sudden incident. Several complaints had been received from the district before and the State itself ranked Chapra 36th among its 38 districts on implementation of the mid-day meal scheme.

Pointing to delays in treatment, Mr. Yadav said the government was trying to wash its hands of the incident. “This event is shameful for all of us,” he said.

Other members said the BJP was not above blame as its Ministers handled the Health department for seven-and-half years. The BJP, they said, was responsible for the dismal healthcare system in the State.

Mr. Shahi, Education Minister, defended the government’s actions, saying the best possible care was provided to the victims. He promised the House that “the strictest action would be taken against the culprits” and lacunae in the mid-day meal scheme implementation removed.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who was not present in the House for most part of the discussion, said the government would not spare those responsible for the tragedy.