THE MEAL should have been ready by midday but it was already 12:30 pm. The 190 schoolchildren were getting impatient as they awaited for permission from the teachers, who were holding them back in the classrooms to prevent a rush. When the kitchen at Eduloor Primary School, Nalgonda, finally opened on December 24, it was followed by a scramble — and a tragic death.
Five-year-old Balguri Jayawardhan was the second child in the queue. Just as the student ahead of him reached out for his plateful, Jayawardhan tumbled into a vat filled to the brim with sambar, just taken off the fire. No one saw if he fell accidentally or if someone had pushed him. He was pulled out almost at once but, scalded from the neck to the ankles, he died with 80 per cent burns at Hyderabad’s Osmania Hospital that night.
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His father B Ramalingaiah and mother Saroja had admitted him to the school only last month, on November 11 — and reluctantly, the father said.
K Bujji, a member of the school staff who volunteers to manage the midday meal queues everyday, said the three cooks, now suspended, were negligent and irresponsible. The 45-year-old school, with 201 students from LKG to V, is dilapidated, with pieces of concrete falling off the ceiling in all classrooms and the kitchen. With the kitchen deemed unsafe, the cooks — B Bhagyamma, G Shankaramma and N Shardamma — had started serving at the entrance.
“That day, it was already late and the children were hungry. Eggs were on the menu, so there was some jostling and pushing,” Bujji said. “The cook was putting food on the first one’s plate when, all of a sudden, Jayawardhan fell into the vat. Except for his head and toes, he was totally immersed in the hot sambar.”
Two cooks pulled the screaming boy out. “Before anyone else could think of anything, they made the mistake of removing his clothes, which peeled the skin from the neck down to the ankles,” said Chinta Nagarjuna, the school’s chairman. “They covered him in a towel but the boy said it was hurting. He could not lie down because of the pain and stood all the while. Someone called an autorickshaw and the brave boy walked to the road and boarded it by himself. He was conscious when they met the ambulance halfway and a paramedic helped him in.”
Jayawardhan was taken to the Government Hospital at Nalgonda, where doctors gave him initial treatment and told his father to rush him to Osmania.
That morning, Jayawardhan had woken up late and insisted his mother bathe him. “He gulped down a few morsels of leftover pulighora and walked with his grandfather to school,” wept Saroja. In the afternoon, some students came running and informed his father what had happened.
The boy’s father used to work in Hyderabad but fate brought the family back to the village. Ramalinghaiah, 34, was earlier an attendant at the SBI branch on Hyderabad’s Rajbhavan Road, earning about Rs 9,000 per month. They sent Jayawardhan to Naive English Medium School at Saroornagar.
But Ramalingaiah quit the job because, he said, he suffered from acute gastric problems. “I was on medication and it was impossible to work, so we decided to return to our village in August. Initially, I was reluctant to admit him to the village school because I hoped that when I was better we would go back to Hyderabad and Jayawardhan and his sister could study in good schools. But he was just playing around, so I admitted him here. Who would have thought that he would meet such a terrible fate?” he said.
School chairman Nagarjuna said that in spite of being told several times to use smaller vessels, the three cooks served directly from the vats. “They would use a large steel glass to serve sambar or rasam, and a plate to scoop up rice. They were told not to serve like that… but they ignored everyone. The cooks also started serving food outside the kitchen as chunks of concrete are falling off the ceiling,” Nagarjuna said.
While the boy was being rushed to hospital, the cooks, who had been working in the school for 15 years, left and are now absconding. “They fled the village with their families,” says circle inspector A V Prasad.
A member of the gram panchayat, G Sudhakar, alleged, “Because the boy was a Dalit, the cooks simply left him. Had he been from any other community, they would have shown some empathy and accompanied him to the hospital after this happened under their watch.”
The cooks and headmistress N Uma have been suspended for negligence by Nalgonda district collector Gaurav Uppal. The Telangana government has announced Rs 2 lakh compensation to the family.