Given the gravity of the crime, the 17 years’ imprisonment awarded to a primary school principal in Chhapra district in Bihar is not at all severe. As many as 23 children had died after partaking of mid-day meal in 2013. Rice and soybean curry were served to the students. The oil used for cooking was kept in a tin which had pesticide residue. Complaints were made to the principal that the oil was blackish in colour but she did not care. The tragedy occurred because the principal’s husband used to store pesticides and fertiliser in the same room where food materials for children’s mid-day meal were also kept. If this is not criminal negligence, what else is it?
The charges proved against her are culpable homicide not amounting to murder and criminal negligence. She will have to undergo the two terms of imprisonment consecutively, not concurrently. In other words, she will have to be in jail for 17 years. While she has a right to go in for appeal to the High Court, this should set an example for all school authorities. The mid-day meal programme is an additional responsibility for school principals but they cannot shy away from it, as it is an important component of school education. For many poor children, mid-day meal is an incentive to attend school.
The Chhapra tragedy was not the first of its kind. There have been many such incidents in the past which is a pointer to the negligence of the school authorities. The rules stipulate that the food should be cooked and served only under the supervision of the teachers, who should also eat it along with the students. This is to ensure that high standards of hygiene are maintained. There are tens of hundreds of Gurdwaras and temples where cooked food is served daily to tens of thousands of people. No such incidents of food poisoning are reported from such institutions. This means that mid-day meal tragedies can easily be averted, if the school authorities are more careful and importantly, more caring.