What could be more heinous than making children pawns in a deadly political game?
On Wednesday in a small village called Chapra in Bihar, 22 children happily ate the lunch served by the primary school they were studying. The meal turned out to be the proverbial Last Supper. The children – all under 10 years of age – died soon after.
Many other children who also had the lunch are critically ill in hospitals. There can be more deaths.
Already, some sources say 27 have actually died.
First reports talk of organic phosphorous in the food being the killer. The chemical is used to kill insects and rats.
It is suspected that the mustard oil used to cook the lunch was adulterated with organic phosphorous.
Was this a case of criminal negligence or political conspiracy?
The headmistress of the school (now absconding) — whose husband, an influential political worker, had been supplying the ingredients for the school’s free mid-day meal — refused to believe the cook and the students when they complained of foul smell in the food.
She forced the children to eat the lunch, arrogantly ignoring a mandate which states that food must be tasted by teachers before it is given to children.
The Education Minister of Bihar, P.K. Shahi, alleged that the poisoning was part of a political conspiracy by the opposition to destabilise the ruling government in the state in an election year.
If this was indeed a plot to mar political prospects, nothing could be more inhuman and cruel than this: what could be more heinous than making children pawns in a deadly political game?
If we were to discount political intrigue, the young deaths are then nothing short of a telling commentary on the chronic inattention to India’s education system, specifically the universal primary education scheme that the country has been so proudly touting. Here was a case of a school being unable to provide a simple lunch with the minimum of hygiene.
Such pathetic callousness is all the more deplorable because the federal government has been levying a cess on taxes, part of which is allotted to the states for their mid-day meal programmes.
As The Hindu editorial says: “If the preliminary evidence pointing to food poisoning and ingestion of yellow phosphorous — which is used in fertilisers and as rat poison — is confirmed as the cause of the tragedy, it points to a colossal failure to observe minimum food safety standards. It is a matter of concern that man-made tragedies such as these can shake the faith of the citizen in a crucial welfare programme, rightly lauded as the biggest school meal programme in the world covering 10.54 crore children”.
It may take days for the truth to be uncovered, if at all. But whether the lives were lost because of negligence or deep-rooted political mischief – the deaths can never be condoned.
And the people of the tiny village are not going to forgive or forget what happened to their children.
Many parents have already buried their sons and daughters right outside the school, and the memorials which will come up there will be a grim reminder of how a state allowed it’s very young to die in such a horrible way.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at[email protected]