Even though the tragedies took place in two different parts of the world and were slightly different in nature, the victims were the same — small school-children. Residents of Dharmasati-Gandaman village in Saran district of Bihar and of Newtown in Connecticut in the United States of America share a common grief. They both lost 20-odd school-going children in two different ways.
On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, son of Nancy Lanza, first killed his mother at home and then rushed to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where his mother was a teacher, and mowed down 20 kids and six adults before turning the gun on himself. The killing had sent shock waves throughout the country, even though it was not the first of such campus shootings.
On July 16, 2013, 23 children belonging to poor families died after eating the mid-day meal that was prepared at a primary school in Saran district. In Newtown, the kids paid the price for the prevailing gun-culture in the US. In Saran, they died because of the shoddy implementation of the Centrally-funded programme by the Bihar government. Most of the dead kids were buried near the community centre which also served as a school for the want of a separate building.
In the US, where guns are wreaking havoc on campuses — and elsewhere too — the response of the administrative machinery has been different from that in Bihar. The shooting generated widespread sympathy and President Barack Obama himself visited Newtown to pay his condolences. Multi-faith prayers were held for the children who had perished. It is another thing though that in the absence of a stringent law on firearms — the US has over 310 million guns — approximately 32,000 people die in gun-related violence every year. But Newtown shook even the ardent champion of guns — the National Rifle Association — which opposes any legislation directed at curbing the ownership of weapons. Obama vowed to check the recurrence of such a tragedy.
The school-children who died in Dharmasati-Gandaman were aged between 5 and 12. Not to speak of president or prime minister, even the state’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, or his colleagues did not have the time to console the relatives of the victims even though the village is only about 80-odd kilometres from Patna. They could not even visit the Patna Medical College and Hospital where the children were brought for treatment.
Instead the whole issue was politicized. Conspiracy angles were probed as the tragedy took place close on the heels of the bomb blasts in Bodh Gaya and within a month of the snapping of the 17-year-long political alliance between the ruling Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party. If we are to agree for argument’s sake that the children died on account of a conspiracy, even then do they not need to be attended to?
But it is not the mid-day meal alone which is taking lives of school-children in India. Every year, hundreds of them die or suffer serious injuries while going to or returning from school as the vehicles in which they travel often meet with accidents in rush-hour traffic. Recently, on the morning of July 30, at least 10 children died when their bus collided with a truck in Ganganagar in Rajasthan.
Children are packed into rickety vehicles and sent to school like cattle hours before their parents leave home for work. They are punished or penalized when they reach school late as they are expected to be punctual. Parents seldom receive compensation or consolation when their children meet with mishaps. After all they are supposed to pay a price for education.