For better meals,7,700 Bihar schools pledged new homes

Chhapra school where 23 died among those being shifted to schools with better infrastructure

Written by Santosh Singh | Chapra/patna | Published: July 23, 2013 5:20 am

Running without a building of their own,7,746 schools in Bihar will each be “tagged on” to the nearest government school that does have a dedicated building,and whose infrastructure it will share until it gets a building where it can be relocated,the human resource development department said Monday.

The decision is a fallout of the Chhapra tragedy last week when 23 children died after eating a midday meal later found to have contained pesticide. The move is to ensure better monitoring of the midday meal scheme,the department’s principal secretary said.

Bihar has 73,591 government and government-aided schools with 2.23 crore students,and 71,200 of these serve midday meals. The primary school at Gandaman village,Chhapra,which was created this year,was being run from the village community hall. The hall,measuring 20 ft×15 ft,served as a school for 185 children while part of the verandah,20×6,served as the kitchen where midday meals were cooked. On the day of the tragedy,108 children were present.

“We can no longer allow schools without proper infrastructure to carry on with the midday meal scheme,” said HRD principal secretary Amarjeet Sinha. “We will shift them in phases.”

The Gandaman school,now closed,will be shifted to a nearby middle school. This will mean a walk of 10 minutes for children of Gandaman. Such shifts can potentially face resistance in some parts of the state. The government stresses the absence of infrastructure and the standards to be followed for classrooms,kitchens and drinking water. As per government figures,8,111 schools have no drinking water facilities,35,639 are without a separate toilet for girls,and 20,193 don’t have even a common toilet.

“We are trying to find ways to keep teachers out of the monitoring of midday meals,” HRD secretary Sinha said. “We are also looking at the example of Tamil Nadu,where an independent agency has been engaged for implementation of the scheme. There are cost factors involved,so the government cannot decide anything straightaway.”

The reason why so many schools lacking in infrastructure came up has undertones of caste politics. Though the government cited “the pressure of complying with norms under the Right to Education Act”,it also set about setting up many of the new schools in the backyards of scheduled caste and backward class groups.

Gandaman,for example,has 125 households of the Nonia EBC and as many of scheduled castes. The village also has a mixed population of Yadavs and upper caste Brahmins. “It was when the government opened a school here that it should have ensured a proper mechanism to monitor midday meals,” said Ramesh Mahato,who lost two members of his family.

Raju Singh,a primary teacher at a Chhapra school,said there are several examples of the government opening schools in areas with an EBC or an SC population even when schools already stood within a kilometre. Ramsharan Rai of Gandaman agreed that setting these up was part of votebank politics.

Bihar has managed to bring down its students-to-classroom ratio from 95 in 2005 to 53 in 2012,but that has meant many schools running in cramped spaces as in Gandaman,often with several classes being held simultaneously in the same hall. At 1:57,the teacher-to-students ratio remains way behind the RTE standard of 1:34.

Sinha concedes a lot remains to be done but cites progress in the last seven years. “We have increased the number of schools by over 20,000 in seven years. Enrolment of students rose from 1.4 crore to over 2 crore now. We have constructed 16,000 new school buildings.”

Bihar’s allocation for education in 2013-14 is Rs 5,197.71 crore,15.29 per cent of the state budget. The state has 1.12 lakh areas the government classifies as “habitations”,and 1,08,074 of these are covered by a primary school.

AFTER CHHAPRA

MINISTER’S HOME: 30 NSUI workers protested outside HRD Minister P K Shahi’s home Monday. When police tried to force them out,they blackened the minister’s nameplate and later damaged it. NSUI Bihar president Sumit Kumar Sunny said: “We had gone to submit a memorandum but the police used force.” The minister was not at home.

NITISH STATEMENT: Chief Minister Nitish Kumar termed the Chhapra tragedy “very unfortunate” and regretted not having visited there because of a fracture in his leg. He accused a “united” opposition of indulging in politics over the death of children. It was JD(U) spokesperson Rajiv Ranjan who conveyed the statement. “I have been monitoring the midday meal incident and can stay up nights for the sake of the people of Bihar if required,” the CM said.

ARREST WARRANT: The Chhapra chief judicial magistrate’s court issued an arrest warrant against school principal Mina Devi,who is absconding along with her husband. Police have searched her house at Gandaman and found an oil container and five wrappers for pesticide. Tests have found a farm pesticide,monocrotophos,in the meal.

CONSPIRACY THEORY: A senior police officer said,“As the pesticide content in the samples was five times that for a normal sample,conspiracy cannot be ruled out. We have questioned two cooks. But it is the arrest of the principal that can be vital.” Police have formed an eight-member special investigation team.

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