The Bihar Police was put under “tremendous pressure” to establish foul play in the deaths of 23 schoolchildren in the Gandaman primary school midday meal tragedy, but its investigations showed only “criminal negligence” on the part of the school principal, the officer in charge of the probe told The Indian Express.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the state police exculpated the husband of the principal, who had bought the pesticide that made its way into the children’s meal.
Accepting the CID’s supervision note, an additional district judge in Chhapra, Saran, in August 2016 convicted the principal, Meena Devi, and sentenced her to two jail terms of 10 years and seven years, to run consecutively rather than concurrently, adding up to a total sentence of 17 years.
The court acquitted Meena’s husband, Arjun Rai alias Arjun Yadav, of all charges.
This is how Vinay Kumar, additional director-general of police, CID, reconstructed the events of July 16, 2013 — the day of the tragedy — in an exclusive interview to The Indian Express.
That day, Meena Devi, the principal of Gandaman primary school in Bihar’s Saran district, had planned to distribute free government textbooks to about 100 children studying in Classes 1 to 5. The school was running in a community hall measuring 30 ft by 20 ft. An open part of the verandah was being used as the midday meal kitchen.
Meena’s husband, Arjun Rai, had announced to the children and their parents that books would be distributed, and almost three times the usual number of 30-40 students had turned up. The midday meal menu, according to a chart prepared by the government, was rice and soybean curry.
Rai, a farmer, had decided to grow sugarcane that year, and had purchased monocrotophos, a cheap but acutely toxic organophosphate agricultural insecticide. He had kept the container on the verandah of their house, some 600 metres from the school.
Meena asked one of the two school cooks to bring the container of mustard oil from the verandah, which had no separately marked space for the midday meals groceries.
“The cook saw two similar containers. Arjun Rai had brought two litres of monocrotophos, an agricultural pesticide, from the neighbouring Sidhwalia Sugar Mill for his sugarcane crop. Monocrotophos resembles mustard oil. Instead of picking up the container of mustard oil, the cook picked up the one containing monocrotophos,” ADGP Kumar said.
Once on the fire, the pesticide turned black. The two cooks and some students brought this unusual behaviour of the ‘mustard oil’ to the notice of the principal. Meena Devi, however, dismissed their concerns, saying old mustard oil can turn black with heat.
Around 1.30 pm, the first batch of 60-odd students were ready to have lunch. Some, like Laxmi Sah, daughter of confectioner Raju Sah, went back home because they did not want to eat what was being served, but others like her brother Krishna stayed because they liked soybean. By 2.30 pm, there was complete chaos: parents were rushing their children to Masrakh hospital with complaints of giddiness, vomiting and breathlessness.
In the end, 23 schoolchildren between the ages of 6 and 12 years had died of poisoning.
CID officers picked up the residue of the cooked soyabean from utensils and put it through Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS), a chemistry technique to identify the amount and types of chemicals in a sample, and were able to establish the presence of the pesticide. It was known that Arjun Rai had procured monocrotophos for his sugarcane crop; what the CID now needed to find out was whether he had a motive for murder.
“We were under tremendous pressure to prove foul play. Rai could have added monocrotophos to the container of mustard oil. But his only mistake was to keep the pesticide container in the vicinity of the mustard oil container,” ADGP Kumar said.
“It was criminal negligence on the part of the school principal, who should have responded to the complaints of the cooks and the students,” said the officer. “Naming Arjun Rai would have been poor padding for a conspiracy theory. Rai had no motive to conspire to kill students. The school principal was solely responsible for the tragedy,” he said.