Does serving the mid-day meal to school children violate the model code of conduct? Of course not, that is a legal guarantee, but barely half an hour before the announcement of the Bihar poll dates, the irony of this question isn’t lost on anyone here.
This is the Gandaman primary school in Chhapra, where 23 children lost their lives after eating their mid-day meal on July 16, 2013. And where an estimated 150 boys and girls, from Class 1-5, have not had a mid-day meal for almost a month now.
Rats scurry in the abandoned kitchen, turmeric is strewn on the counter next to a washcloth rag that has twisted as it has dried. The water tank has been dismantled from the roof and lies in a store room. Children say they drink water to quench thirst — and their hunger.
The menu is freshly painted on the wall. Today was meant to be khichdi “fortified” with “green vegetables” and “chokha” (mashed potatoes). But the children have gone hungry.
“There is no firewood, no food supplies,” said Janardhan Ram, one of the school’s three teachers on deputation.
”I am still waiting for the supplies,” said Animesh Kumar Singh, the school principal. “My stocks got over on August 5, and as per rules, I filed that information online by clicking on the “No Stock” button in the system. I managed to stretch the existing stock till August 15, but that was it.”
When contacted, the block resource person in charge of procuring the supplies, Rajesh Kumar, confirmed that he had received information that stocks had got over at the school on August 5. “I received fresh stocks on August 28,” he said. But when asked why the supplies had not reached the school even after 10 days, Kumar declined to comment.
“We lost everything, we lost our children, our support system,” said Raju Sah, who lost his five-year-old son in the tragedy. “No one came to visit us, no one talked to us, including Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. They gave me Rs 2 lakh but what will I do with that?”
A whole new floor is being built here in an upgrade as part of a scheme announced by the Nitish government in the wake of the tragedy to make this a model village. As part of this, a memorial to the children killed has also been built with the names of the victims etched in polished granite.
The tragedy and its aftermath are very much part of the political buzz here, long considered to be a bastion of the RJD. MLA Kedarnath Singh of the Baniapur constituency, in which this school falls, is from the RJD and was unavailable for comment.
Akhilanand Mishra, who also lost his five-year-old son, said: “Gandaman was supposed to be a model village but they have not been able to provide even a mid-day meal to children. There is a lot of anger here and one may see it being expressed during the coming poll.”
When asked why no mid-day meals have been served in what is being built as a model village, State HRD Minister P K Shahi told The Indian Express: “I will seek details of the case you have mentioned from the mid-day meal project director.”
At the Gandaman middle and secondary school, a mile away, work the two women who cooked that fatal meal that day, Manju Devi and Pano Devi. Pano Devi lost two children to the tragedy, Manju Devi’s three children had to be admitted to hospital.
Both have cooked today’s mid-day meal there. And both have one complaint: “We get Rs 1,000 a month, tell me is this enough for a mother who works from 7 am to 5 pm, who cooks the daily meal and who lost her children?”
School principal Meena Devi and her husband Arjun Rai are currently in jail facing trial.
Back at the primary school, meanwhile, emerging from the ground on the compound is a grave now covered with grass. Here’s where local resident Satyendra Ram buried his nine-year-old son, shrugging off reservations expressed by officials. Why? Because Ram wants his son’s grave to serve as a reminder to all about what went wrong here.