In Bihar, a Village Struggles to Come to Terms With School Deaths

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Grief-stricken family members react over the bodies of their children who died after consuming a free midday meal at a school at Gandaman in Saran district, India's Bihar state, on July 17, 2013

The Navsrijit Primary School, at the heart of the hamlet of Dharmasati Gandaman in east India’s Bihar state, stands desolate. The cricket pitch, once buzzing with children, is today a cemetery. Small makeshift mounds dot the ground — the graves of 17 of the children who died after eating a contaminated school lunch. They have been buried beside the school by distraught parents, who never want it forgotten that their children lost their lives because of flaws in India’s Midday Meal Scheme — a feeding program that sees 120 million free lunches served daily to pupils in every government elementary school and high school in the country. Last Tuesday, the day that contaminated food was served at Navsrijit school, was also a day when the children were to be given free books. So no one played truant. “All the children went to school that day,” says Mukeswar Ram, a village elder who lost a grandson in the tragedy. Forty-seven children fell ill; twenty-three died at a local medical center or on the way to hospital in Patna, the state capital, around 80 km away.

A burned-out police vehicle, set alight during protests over the deaths, stands at the entrance to Dharmasati. The village is home to around 400 families, so everyone knows at least one of the children who died. Days after the tragedy, villagers still wander up to the now closed school in stunned silence. With its damp patches, peeling plaster and holes in the floor, Navsrijit school can be a forlorn place at the best of times. Now, with 23 of its young children dead, it is a place of unbearable poignancy. Outside on the veranda is a mud oven, which the two school cooks had used to prepare what would be, for many children, their last meal. Pana Devi, one of the cooks, is currently by the hospital bed of her only surviving child. Her other two children were among those who died. “[Devi] was on a religious fast that day, otherwise she would have eaten with the children too,” Devi’s husband Lal Bahadur Prasad tells TIME. “After the children were struck down, she went mute with grief.” The other cook, Manju Devi, who ate with the children, is still seriously ill in the hospital. The headmistress, Meena Devi, who allegedly ignored complaints that the cooking oil and a curry served at the lunch tasted foul, instead telling the children to get on with their meal, has absconded and is being sought by police.

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“We were so happy when the Midday Meal Scheme started. We felt that our children could now study as well as get one square meal a day,” says Rangeela Rai, a 75-year-old man who lost one grandchild in the tragedy and has eight others in the hospital. “The very core of our faith has been shaken.”

A forensic report on Sunday confirmed the presence of large amounts of the highly toxic pesticide monocrotophos in the cooking oil used at the school and in the food served. It is thought that the cooking oil was stored in containers that had formerly held the pesticide — a terrifying mistake that has exposed New Delhi’s inability to control its vast school-lunch program. “The whole program is flawed,” Prashant Kumar Shahi, Bihar’s education minister, tells TIME. “One person’s carelessness can create a huge catastrophe in such a huge program. It is impossible to guarantee hundred-percent hygiene and quality in its present form.”

At the same time, the fault is not New Delhi’s alone. A report in the Times of India claims that Bihar returned $83 million sent to it in the years between 2006 and 2012 by the central government, for the construction of proper hygienic kitchens and other facilities for the Midday Meal Scheme, allegedly because the state hadn’t gotten around to spending it.

The Midday Meal Scheme was first introduced in southern India in 1925. Today it is the world’s largest school-lunch service, reaching 1.2 million schools, and a critical program in a nation that is thought to be home to a third of the world’s malnourished children. However, the program has also come under intense criticism for allegedly corrupt practices, including cost fixing and the sale on the open market of food intended for schools, and for providing substandard food. A recent report by the government of Maharashtra state found that in one instance school food contained “rat droppings, glass fragments and stones.” And just two days after the Bihar tragedy, dozens of children fell sick in the state of Tamil Nadu after eating a school lunch of rice and lentils.

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India’s disarrayed delivery of welfare programs is not new. The lumbering Public Distribution System (through which the government buys basic foods such as rice and wheat from farmers and distributes them through “fair-price” shops at subsidized prices to the very poor) has been beset with the same allegations of corruption and substandard or adulterated food leveled at the Midday Meal Scheme. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which supposedly guarantees 100 days of employment to one member of every rural household, has also fallen foul of corruption and lopsided implementation. India’s Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out in April that the number of workdays being provided under the scheme averaged just 43 in the year 2011 to 2012, and that only 30% of public works commissioned were completed.

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the tragedy at Dharmasati, many parents have asked schools to stop lunch service, and no schools in the area served lunches last week. “The children are scared, we are scared,” says the headmaster of nearby Panchvinda and Dhulahi Nara Primary School. Slightly farther away, in Sundarpur, the headmistress of Rajakiya Primary School has bought a large padlocked trunk in which she intends to safely store ingredients for school meals in the future.

But for the families and children of Dharmasati, precautions are now too late. A grieving father, Satinder Ram, sits exhausted under a banyan tree. He has just returned from Punjab, where he works as a laborer, to mourn his 8-year-old son Rahul. Next to him, his sister pummels her chest and emits heart-wrenching sobs of pain. Ram is in a daze. Rahul, he says, was a lively boy who wanted to grow up to become an engineer. “He was intelligent, mischievous and bright, and we wanted a great future for him. I still don’t understand why he ended up dead.”

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This story has been edited to reflect the fact that the 23 children died at a local medical center, or on the way to hospital, but not at the hospital in Patna.