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Home / Education / News /  Bihar mid-day meal deaths: Lessons from a tragedy

On 16 July, 23 children died after a meal at Bihar’s Gandaman-Dharmasati primary school that was contaminated with pesticide.

The victims were from across the social strata—Yadav, Nonia, Dalit, Vaisya, Brahmin—defying the typical trajectory of caste-based right violations of the poor in rural Bihar. As Raja Devi, a grandmother who lost two grandchildren, said, “Even a thief has some ethics. He spares some houses. But this time it was God who visited us, and he spared none. Who can question his wisdom?"

In what is a gross violation of normative standards set out in the Right to Education Act, a small dilapidated single room set in the middle of 19 bighas of government land served as the “school". Children came here every weekday at an appointed hour, to study alphabets and numbers. In the official records for 16 July, over 100 children were crammed into the room. The principal was a para-teacher appointed on contract and so were the cooks Manju and Panna. The meals were never good, I am told. But on that fateful day, it was the soya bean nuggets—similar to Bihar’s famous badis made of pulses—that attracted many children to eat what turned out to be toxic.

Those who survived said the vegetable had turned black while cooking, that it tasted bitter, that the “mastarni" beat them with a stick and forced them to eat, that a child collapsed after merely licking the badi. One by one, the children collapsed, clutching their stomachs. Among them were cook Panna’s two children.

The anatomy of this cruel tragedy reveals a lot of what is seriously wrong with the Indian state’s pursuit of its professed path of inclusive development and poverty alleviation.

Lack of focus on implementation, especially on the last mile of delivery, and on local oversight is our single largest failure. Indeed, this creates a sort of “vacuum of state power" at the local level. It is in this space that rent-seekers and predators prosper and exercise their monopoly power over the country’s poorest. This indeed was the case in Gandaman, where mercenary contractors became state-appointed functionaries to deliver the rights of its most vulnerable children.

Most parents blamed principal Meena Devi, whose husband Arjun Rai is a dominant local, well networked with powerful leaders of the area. These connections were helpful in getting Meena posted at the school located across the road from her house. The grains and other supplies for the school lunch were purchased by her husband. The parents also pointed to Rai’s complicity with the contractor employed for transporting grains to the school in illegally siphoning off a proportion.

What is more, the block education officer seldom visited the school in exercise of his supervisory role. The only official to have been fired from for this tragedy is another contractual appointee—the block resource person.

As the tragedy unfolded, it was apparent that it wasn’t just the school that failed; the primary health centre in Mashrak did not have adequate facilities to quickly reverse the effects of the poisoning; nor was there a fast enough means of transport to the district headquarters in Chhapra. These observations re-confirm the growing understanding among development practitioners of a very weak presence of the state at the local level. What is more, it took the police more than eight days to arrest Meena Devi, when she is said to have been readying herself to surrender anyway.

These failures are not simply of lack of resources, but of weak implementation and oversight. Since 1990, Bihar has been the recipient of external aid and the centre’s largesse for reforming its primary education system.

This includes the Bihar Education Project (BEP) funded by Unicef, the World Bank-assisted District Primary Education Programme and the National Literacy Mission that led to the creation of a team of Saksharata Abhiyaan volunteers. All three programmes have been noted for the significant levels of community mobilization.

What is more, the village education committees set up under the BEP were noted in policy documents and analytical research to have initiated a dialogue on Bihar’s educational reconstruction and assisted in obtaining land for schools, constructing school buildings, and distributing textbooks.

But at the time of the tragedy, these committees had shrunk to being RTE compliant ad-hoc bodies where the mukhiya and headmasters exercised the real control. As a result, the school was neither under effective oversight nor accountable to the community.

The poor have little hope of justice against those whose actions led to the deaths of their children. They have neither the voice nor the influence to reach centres of judicial intermediation and seek redress for instances of grave violations of rights such as this.

Manisha Priyam was recently awarded a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science on the ‘Politics of Education Policy Reforms in India’, and is currently ICSSR Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

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