Neha Kumari (10) sits on a plastic mat like the other students at Gandaman Middle School. As a cold wind blows in through the open windows,she tightens the scarf around her head. Among the 30-odd students of Class III and IV who share the 20 ft by 20 ft room in the school,its easy to miss the slight Neha. However,the five teachers including the headmaster remember one thing about the 10-year-old distinctly. They have rarely seen her smiling since July 16,when her elder brother,Roshan (11),a Class IV student,became one of the 23 students of Gandaman Primary School to die after having the school mid-day meal.
Neha,who also ate the rice and soyabean curry that day,had to be hospitalised and remained there with 23 other village children for about a month. She still complains of cough and intermittent fever. Though she has no complications because of poisoning any more,her father Baliram Mishra continuously worries for his daughter.
The owner of a small provision store at the Dharmasati market of the village,Mishra cannot afford treatment in a private hospital for her. And the government doctors who were told to monitor follow-up treatment of the mid-day meal tragedy survivors last came on October 22. At least five more of those children continue to suffer from weakness,cough and fever.
The only concession Mishra has made since the tragedy and its hardly a concession he admits is that Neha doesnt eat at the school any more. Nor do the other survivors of the July 16 tragedy. Mid-day meals resumed two months after the incident,including soyabean that is part of the menu,but the 24 do not even drink water from the handpumps. When its time for the tiffin break,they go home. At the Middle School,into which Gandaman Primary School was merged,the containers for oil that the government was meant to provide oil kept in former pesticide containers is believed to have caused the deaths are still missing,but the other facilities are better.
Neha would rather change her school,but knows she cant. I do not trust the food or water. I come to this school only because my father could not afford a better school. I cannot forget how I saw my brother dying.
The compensation of Rs 2 lakh provided for the dead children has been deposited in banks by the parents,with some portion used up for expenses.
Back home from school,Neha removes her only sweater and rushes out to play with friends Pinky and Rajni. Her younger brothers,aged three and four,point excitedly as she draws lines to play a form of hopscotch.
Nehas mother Hemanti Devi is busy in the kitchen. She has not yet recovered from the loss of son Roshan. Her husband has hidden Roshans only photograph. Hemanti recalls the time the house would come alive because of the pranks of Roshan and his three friends,all of them now dead.
Waiting for Neha to go out to play before talking,Baliram says,It hurts to know that the police investigation has not borne any results.
Middle School headmaster Rajkishor Sah takes comfort from the presence of students from the closed school at his school,though he realises it will be a long time before they warm up to mid-day meals again.
Raju Sah,a small shopkeeper who had vowed not to send his daughter to government school after his six-year-old son Shiva died,finally had to succumb because of the lack of options. But Laxmi is expressly instructed to take the tiffin box to school.
Balli Mahto,who lost his son Ashu (7),looks on with pride as elder one Mantu (9) revises his lessons. Mantu had spent 29 days in hospital after the mid-day meal. If Mantu remains serious about studies,Mahto hopes,he will be able to send him to a big school,away from the chilling memory of Gandaman.