Orissa: The girl who died in a school lunch vesselhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/orissa-the-girl-who-died-in-a-school-lunch-vessel/

Orissa: The girl who died in a school lunch vessel

Banita wanted to be among the first to be served eggs at the school midday meal.

To you it may not mean much. But for tribal children,two eggs every week is a great thing,” says Headmaster Sunil Kumar Mohanty.

Mid-day meal: Girl falls into vessel,dies in Orissa

Presumably it was for Banita Kanhar too. The Class III girl never did speak much in class,hampered by stammering. Her tribal parents,who work as daily labourers,say she loved candies,biscuits and kheer,which they found difficult to provide.

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Eggs were a treat as part of the midday meal in the Sevashram School in Girischandrapur village,in Sambalpur district of western Orissa,that Banita attended. These were provided twice a week,Wednesday and Saturday. One such Saturday,August 24,Banita fell into the vessel containing searing hot egg curry. Excited at the egg dish,students were jostling to be served when the eight-year-old got shoved into the vessel.

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Banita received severe burns. She was rushed to the local primary health centre,but the only doctor was absent. The nurse and peon applied some medicines and referred her to the Medical College and Hospital at Burla,72 km away,but there was no government ambulance. She was finally taken to the hospital in a Bolero four hours after the accident. The same evening,she was rushed to the SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack,around 300 km away. By the next morning,Banita was dead.

“She had suffered 70 per cent burns,making it difficult for her to survive,” says a doctor at the SCB Medical College.

Banita’s parents Bhargavi and Laisan Kanhar say that their child,who had been weak since birth,had just started gaining strength. “She was our only child. We are illiterate. We thought she would study,guide us,” says Bhargavi. She was quiet,but very intelligent,the mother adds,studying by the light of a kerosene lantern every evening.

Bhargavi also remembers that Banita hadn’t been very keen to go to school that day. The mother sent her,saying she could not miss the egg curry. “Have your lunch and come back,” she told Banita.

“Some days we can afford curry with rice. Other days,we have green chillis and rice. My daughter liked the midday meal more,” recalls Laisan Kanhar.

Like hundreds of students in Girishchandrapur village,the midday meal was an important part of Banita’s nutrition. Most of the 200-odd tribal families here comprise daily labourers. “There is no assured irrigation. It’s in the monsoon that people till their lands. Rest of the year,we work in the fields of others,” says Rama Chandra Dehury,who is in his 60s.

When the bell rang at 9.30 am on August 24,the 450-odd children at the school—run for tribal,Dalit and OBC boys and girls by the Orissa SC/ST Department—rushed to the kitchen for the midday meal,as they would do regularly. Tiny for her age,Banita made her way closer to the aluminium vessel containing the egg curry,hoping to be the first to catch cook Pratima Adha’s attention. She received a push and landed in the vessel on her back.

Villagers say Banita might have survived had there been a doctor at the PHC. “I could not even look at her burns,” recalls Bhargavi. Even two days later,there was no doctor at the PHC.

Some things had changed though. At the Girischandrapur Sevashram school,on the next egg day,August 28,there was no longer a rush for lunch. Instead of the children going to the kitchen,they were served in the verandah. As they sat in queues,two cooks served them rice and a curry of soya chunks and vegetables.

Soon scores of angry villagers had made a beeline to the school. “You people killed Banita. Why could not the teachers serve the food?” asked Mani Nayak,whose daughter Papina studies in Class IV at the school.

A fight soon broke out between the local woman self-help group supplying the vegetables,pulses and oil and school managing committee president Ekadasi Jani and the headmaster.

“It was just an accident. The girl was weak and someone might have pushed her. But it’s not possible for a teacher to guard all the students all the time,” argued Jagdish Satpathy,the teacher in charge of midday meal. Satpathy has since been suspended by the district administration for his “negligence”.

Orissa is no stranger to midday meal tragedies,even similar to Banita’s. In the week following Banita’s death,on August 29,a Class II student in Bolangir district got burnt when he fell in the vessel containing water strained from cooked rice. Last year,a tribal schoolgirl in Keonjhar district had suffered over 70 per cent burns similarly. She survived as she was quickly rushed to the SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack. There have been other complaints,of food poisoning as well as dead lizards and scorpions being found in the meals.

The government spends all of Rs 3.45 per child daily under the midday meal programme on an average,including the supply of two eggs per week. Despite lack of classrooms and seating space,it is the promise of this hot meal that brings many children from places far away to the Girischandrapur school.

An added attraction is two pairs of new school dresses given by the state government every year. Banita had received her pairs two weeks ago. On August 15,she wore one,telling her mother and cousin Sairindhri Biswal that she would wear the second one on Ganesh Chaturthi.

Sairindhri is still in a daze over the loss of her “only friend”. “She told me she would dance in the school function. I still don’t know why she had to die,” Sairindhri says.

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Bhargavi knows only too well,with her daughter’s last words ringing in her ears. “Even on the hospital bed,she said she wanted to eat biscuits,bread,” the mother recalls. “At night,she asked me to give her some cooked rice as she had not been able to eat anything at school. She told me she was feeling thirsty.”