A Chhapra court on Monday sentenced principal Meena Devi of the government primary school in Dharmashati Gandaman village to 10 years and seven years of imprisonment in connection with the 2013 midday meal tragedy, in which 23 children had died of food poisoning after eating a midday meal. The court treated it as rarest of the rare case and awarded maximum punishment to the school principal Meena Devi for culpable homicide, not amounting to murder and criminal negligence.
The court of additional district judge II found Gandaman school principal Meena Devi guilty on 24 August. The court, however, acquitted her of murder charges, attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy even though the Special Investigation Team had claimed there was a strong case against her. The court acquitted Meena Devi’s husband Arjun Yadav alias Arjun Rai of all charges.
On July 16, 2013, children aged between four and twelve ate the midday meal that consisted of rice, pulses and soya beans. About half an hour later, the children complained of stomach pain, had diarrhoea, and started vomiting. Some of the sick children were sent home, while 16 children, between classes I to V, died on the spot, four were declared dead upon arrival at the hospital, and the others died while in the hospital.
While officials said 23 children had died from eating the contaminated lunch, parents and locals said the number was at least 27.
While eating the lunch, the children had complained that the food tasted odd, and the school’s cook had earlier informed the headmistress that the new cooking oil she was using was discoloured and smelled odd. The principal, Meena Devi, however, had said that the oil had been bought from a local grocery store and was safe.
Initial reports showed that the food was contaminated by an organophosphate, which is a class of chemicals commonly found in insecticides. Bihar’s state education minister at the time, PK Sahi, had said that a preliminary investigation suggested that the food served to the children contained an organophosphate used as an insecticide on rice and wheat crops. He said it was believed the rice had not been washed before it was served to the children. Patna Medical College hospital superintendent Amarkant Jha Amar had said that the post-mortem reports of the children who died confirmed that insecticide was either in the food or cooking oil.
Local villagers, however, said the problem appeared to be with a side dish of soya and potatoes, and not the rice. Children who did not eat the side dish were fine, even though they had eaten the rice and pulses.
The day after the incident, officials had said that they believed the cooking oil had been stored in a container formerly used to store insecticides. State officials said that the oil had been purchased from a shop owned by the headmistress’s husband.
Days after the incident, Meena Devi was suspended and an FIR was lodged against her. Protests had erupted following the deaths, with villagers demanding strict action against the officials responsible for the incident. The school building was shifted to another village where Gandaman children refused to eat their meals for months. The school was later reopened at its designated building near the site of the tragedy in 2015. Though villagers later agreed to allow their children to eat lunch at school, the service remained erratic.