It took four days for the Bihar Government to fix responsibility for the deaths of 27 schoolchildren on July 16, after partaking poisoned food during their midday meal in Dharmasati village, Saran district.
It ordered the attachment of the property of Meena Kumari, the headmistress of the ill-fated school. She is absconding. But Meena is small fry, compared to the phalanx of officials who are responsible for ensuring that rules regarding midday meal scheme are adhered to. Two days later, Amarjeet Sinha, principal secretary, education, went in for semantic jugglery by saying that it was not a case of food poisoning but poison in food. He said preliminary findings pointed to insecticide poisoning of the oil and vegetables. The government has confessed that 7,300 schools do not have their own buildings, let alone sanitation facilities. Education Minister P H Shahi chose to call the tragedy the result of a political conspiracy to damage the government’s image.
Neither Sinha nor Shahi had responded to the Centre’s warnings on a tragedy waiting to happen. Money had been allotted to build midday meal infrastructure in the school, including a kitchen, but R K Lakshmanan, director of the midday meal scheme, has not commented on why no work was done. When the tragedy happened, neither the district magistrate—responsible for monitoring the scheme—nor the midday meal scheme in charge were around or available. The hospital where the children were taken to did not have even rudimentary facilities. The health secretary, upon being made aware of the tragedy, did not take charge of the situation; it took more than 12 hours for the patients to reach Patna Medical College and Hospital 60km away.
When the condition of the children deteriorated, parents and relatives desperately tried to move them to the district’s Sadar Hospital but no ambulances were available. It took almost four hours to reach the hospital after snagging some private vehicles; meanwhile more children died. “Once the children fell sick after eating the school’s contaminated food, we took them to the nearest primary health centre at Masrakh. It had no saline kits or life-saving drugs. The staff was not capable of handling the situation. There were only two beds and one doctor available,” said Rameshwar Mahto whose child is being treated at the PMCH.
The situation in the Sadar Hospital was so bad that children continued to die. It was late in the night—around 11pm—that the district administration decided to shift the affected children to PMCH. Four died on the way.
“We were shifted to PMCH in an ambulance which we had to share with others. It was not equipped with an oxygen cylinder,” said Upendra Rai, another parent.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar asked all officers connected to the incident to refrain from speaking to the media. The international media was barred from the hospital premises. For the past two years, Nitish has highlighted major improvement in the health sector, claiming an increasing number of patients are visiting government hospitals.
“Instead of rushing to announce ex-gratia payments of Rs 2 lakh each to the parents of the victims, the chief minister should have tried to save the children. Better and timely medicare would have saved many lives,” says BJP General Secretary Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Commenting on political conspiracy theory floated by the education minister, RJD chief Lalu Prasad said, “Has anybody stopped the government from arresting any culprit? It has boomeranged on his face and government has to take the blame.”
“Systemic flaws are inherent in the implementation of the midday meal scheme and a syndicate of corruption is active in most of the places because there is no monitoring system,” said Ajay Kumar Jha, who did the monitoring study for the scheme for government of India in September 2012. Most of the schools are without basic infrastructure, providing food where the cook is not trained in basic sanitation. The cases of food poisonings are often reported but who takes care because most of them are coming from lowest strata of the society.
The responsibility of providing training and basic infrastructure rests on the director of the midday meal scheme R Lakshamanan. He is the nodal officer of the implementation of the scheme. Despite regular cases of food poisoning reported in local media he failed to take any major initiative to revamp the system.
Last year, the state government returned Rs 493 crore to the Centre meant to build midday meal kitchens and buy utensils to serve cooked meals. But the government officials were sitting on the money for the last five years.
“Despite Supreme Court directives nowhere is the state institutional and community monitoring system working and almost no infrastructure for cooking food is available in schools and most of the cooking is done in a very unhygienic way,” said Rupesh, advisor to the Commissioner of Supreme Court on midday meals.