At 11 AM on Friday, just when it looked like hundreds of irate parents would break down the iron gates of Sanjay Nagar Municipal Urdu School, where they feared their children lay ill, local resident Rafique Shaikh had the presence of mind to climb up to the Noor-e-Ilahi mosque next door, grab a microphone and appeal for calm.
Only after he made the same appeal at least five times — urging parents to stop fighting among themselves and rush their children to the hospital — and the police personnel intervened in large numbers that peace was restored.
“People were screaming, kicking and pushing each other out of the way to try and enter the school. We kept telling them to be patient but they weren’t listening to us or the police,” Shaikh said.
The mob of anxious parents had gathered at the BMC-run secondary school at 10.30 am to take their children home. By then, word had spread of the death of 12-year-old Chandni Shaikh, a student at the school. The girl, like many other students, had been given iron and folic acid tablets by the teachers as part of a Union government programme on August 6. After her death early in the morning, the needle of suspicion swung on complications resulting from the tablets.
Shaikh, whose daughter Ayesha is the SP corporator for ward 137 in Govandi’s Baiganwadi locality, had already spent the hours earlier convincing Chandni’s parents to report her death to the police. “Her father said that he did not have any complaints against anyone and wanted to give his daughter a quiet burial. So, I rushed to Shivaji Nagar police station, which is a kilometer away from his home, and informed the senior inspector,” he said.
By the time Shaikh reached the school, things had gotten out of hand. “All sorts of rumours were going around. Some said that 15 children had died and their bodies were inside the school. Others claimed that the water and food served to children was contaminated. If the police hadn’t arrived on time, the parents would have ransacked the school and attacked the teaching staff,” he said.
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An officer of the Shivaji Nagar police said, “We got a call around 10.30 am about parents gathering at the school. We deployed three constables outside the school and two each outside Rajawadi and Shatabdi hospitals, where the ill children were admitted. They quelled the rumours, controlled the crowd and helped in ferrying some of the children to the hospitals.”
After order was restored, the waiting parents were allowed to take their children to hospitals.
Ayesha, the local corporator, said that one of biggest mistakes was letting it slip inside the school that Chandni had died. “When they heard of her death, other students became extremely scared. They were even more disturbed seeing the scenes outside the gates. Many children fell sick simply because they were scared,” she claimed.
Ayesha, her father and other party workers spent most of the day checking on the situation at Rajawadi and Shatabdi hospitals. “It will be hard to say what went wrong until the postmortem and forensic examination reports of Chandni’s body arrive and till we receive results of tests conducted on the other children,” she added.
While seconding the BMC’s initial findings that Chandni had been sick even before being administered tablets on Monday, Ayesha said that the school’s drinking water supply, mid-day meals and stock of medicine would all be examined.
The school complex on road number 8 at Baiganwadi serves as a venue for classes of Urdu, Hindi and Marathi medium schools.
More than 5,000 students study there in morning and afternoon batches. Baiganwadi, a large slum near BMC’s dumping ground in Deonar, is also home to various tailoring and leather units apart from a thriving scrap industry.