The mid-day meal death toll in Bihar’s Saran district rose to 22 with two more children falling victims today after consumption of free food sparking violent protests amid suspicions by the state government it was poisoned. In a related incident,about 50 students of a government middle school in Madhubani district fell ill after eating food under the mid-day meal scheme. The food was served to children of Navtolia Middle School,Bisfi,about 22 km from Madhubani,amid allegations by the students that a dead lizard was found in the meal.
“The oil used to cook the vegetables was foul-smelling. Doctors found the presence of organic phosphorus in the food and vomit. It means the children were poisoned,” Bihar education minister P K Shahi told reporters in Patna. Shahi did not rule out foul play and said investigations will determine whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate. As the tragedy sparked a political blame game,Shahi also alleged a political conspiracy against the state government. “Principal Meena Kumari’s husband is close to a political leader,” he said.
Shahi suspected the poisoning to be caused by insecticides in vegetable or rice. Union HRD Minister Pallam Raju said an FIR has already been lodged against the school principal. The “food has turned killer”,screamed a woman whose two sons were among the victims,as a pall of gloom hung over Dandaman village.
While 16 children,aged below 10 years and studying in Class I to V,had died in Chhapra itself,four others were declared dead on arrival at Patna Medical College Hospital (PMCH) late last night. Two died at the hospital this morning,official and PMCH sources said. Twenty five others are under medical supervision in PMCH,Superintendent of PMCH Amarkant Jha Azad said. There were emotional scenes as children,their limbs dangling and heads drooping to one side,were brought to a hospital.
The tragedy took place at the government primary school in Dahrmasati Gandawan village at Mashrakh block,about 25 km from Chhapra and 60 km from Patna yesterday. Police said that during the violent protests three police vehicles were damaged by agitators during a bandh call in Saran district over the deaths.
Centre seeks report from Bihar
The Centre has sought a report from the Bihar government on the mid-day meal tragedy in the state that left 22 children dead as it feared food contamination to be the cause of the deaths. “It is a very sad incident and we are deeply pained over the loss of lives of young children,” HRD Minister M M Pallam Raju told reporters here as he termed the incident an “aberration”. “It is an aberration that this has happened although it is an unfortunate incident,it’s not a recurring thing,” he said,adding an FIR has been lodged against the school principal.
He said the incident looked like a case of food contamination and asked states to exercise caution while implementing the scheme. Raju,whose ministry is the nodal agency for implementing the programme,said investigations are on into the incident and whether the guidelines were followed would be known only after the completion of the probe. Officials said,the ministry has sought a report from the Bihar government even as School Education Secretary Rajarshi Bhattacharya spoke the Bihar Chief Secretary this morning.
Additional Secretary in the ministry Amarjit Singh,who was sent to collect first hand report about the incident,is expected to return today and brief the ministry. The food was prepared at the school and the students were served dal,rice,sabzi and soyabean,Raju said. “We have focused on the quality of the mid-day meal programme right from the beginning. Even when the gas prices had gone up,we had ensured that the quality of the mid-day meal did not suffer,” he said. As per norms,he said the food prepared has to be tested by two to three adults including at least one teacher before it is served to the children.
Reheating of food is not allowed while authorities also require to ensure that ingredients used for cooking should be free from adulteration and pest infestation and should be used only after proper cleaning and washing,he said. Raju also said it is the responsibility of the district administration and village heads to ensure proper implementation of the scheme. The tragic incident has been condemned by both the
ministers of state of HRD Jitin Prasada and Shashi Tharoor who termed the deaths as “shocking” and “unfortunate”. “Bihar’s mid-day meal tragedy is deeply shocking. mid-day meals have been a major success: provided nutrition to the poor kids and kept them in schools,” Tharoor tweeted.
Prasada,on the other hand,said the “unfortunate” incident should not be politicised and the guilty should be punished. The mid-day meal programme is one of the largest programmes in the world,serving hot cooked food to over 10 crore children in more than 11 lakh schools across the country. An important component of the Sarva Sikshya Abhiyan programme,it entails the Centre and the state to share the cost on the 75:25 ratio. Raju said granting cooking sheds for preparing food is vital for its implementation and in case of Bihar,65,977 kitchen-cum-store were sanctioned for safe and hygiene cooking,of which 44,159 of them have been constructed.
He replied in negative when asked if the ministry would study the proposal of a standing committee to provide packed food. “We are mandated to provide cooked food under law,” he said. However,Raju said their experiences with the NGOs engaged in serving mid-day meal have been quite encouraging.