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Meal that killed children’s faith
- A year after Gandaman tragedy, parents forbid kids from eating lunch served in govt schools

Gandaman (Saran), July 16: Exactly a year ago, Akhilanand Mishra (35) lost his five-year-old son Ashish — the child was among the 23 who died after eating a meal served in their school which was later found to be laced with a toxic insecticide.

So shattered is Mishra (35) that he has vowed never to send his two-year-old daughter Khushboo to a government school that serves midday meal, one of the world’s largest such programmes to ensure education for children.

The children who survived the tragedy don’t want to eat a meal at their school ever again.

The 23 children of Gandaman Primary School at Dharmasati-Gandaman village in Saran, around 130km northwest of Patna, died after eating the midday meal served in the school. The forensic report said the food served was contaminated with monocrotophos, an organophosphate insecticide banned in the US and several other countries because of its high toxicity. India, however, is one of the highest consumers of monocrotophos.

The cooking oil was kept in containers that had the insecticide. It had been brought from the house of Meena Devi, the then principal of the school. Meena and her husband Arjun Rai are behind bars.

For Mishra and other parents who lost their children, time hasn’t been able to heal their wounds or lessen their anger.

“It is still hard for me to think that my Ashish is no more with us. I will never send Khushboo to a government school serving midday meal,” Mishra said, his eyes welling up. His wife Putul Kumari moved inside her home, sobbing.

To mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, Saran district magistrate Kundan Kumar today formally handed over to the Gandaman villagers a newly built primary school building worth Rs 13.5 lakh. The building is replete with a clean kitchen, a community hall worth Rs 1.8 lakh, an anganwadi centre (Rs 8.57 lakh) and a primary health centre (Rs 15.12 lakh) and is a part of the government’s promise to make Dharmasati-Gandaman a “model village”.

In a bid to instil confidence among the people, the administration had urged the parents of the deceased children to lay the foundation stone of several development projects. The district magistrate, who organised a two-hour function and a havan today, said the village would soon have a branch of a nationalised bank.

“We have already electrified the village with its 300 families enjoying power connection. We have set up four transformers to ensure regular power supply. All the entitled families have got homes under Indira Awas Yojna,” Kundan Kumar said. “Efforts are on to make Gandaman a truly model village.”

As per the announcement of then chief minister Nitish Kumar, a high school is being built at the village at a cost of Rs 1.02 crore.

However, all this means little for the families who lost their children. Several children who survived the tragedy began attending classes six months after recovering from the trauma. Many of them have not gained confidence to attend school yet. Those who do so don’t touch the midday meal.

Prince Kumar, Mantu Kumar, Golu Kumar, Pinki Kumari and Kanti Kumari are among the lucky survivors of the tragedy. However, their parents still do not allow them to eat meal prepared at the school.

“After the tragedy, I do not allow my 10-year-old daughter Pinki Kumari to eat midday meal in the school. She takes home-cooked food to school. I do not even allow her to drink water at the school. She carries water from home,” said 45-year-old Chandrama Mahto. Pinki, who had eaten the meal last year, was hospitalised for 23 days at Patna Medical College and Hospital.

“My daughter Kanti Kumari (13) survived the tragedy. However, the government did not do much for such her except giving medical treatment for about a monthÖ We expect round-the-clock availability of a doctor in the village so that we can contact him in an emergency,” said Kishan Mahto.

Surendra Prasad (38), who lost his 10-year-old daughter Mamta Kumari, criticised Nitish for never once visiting the village. “Neither Nitish nor Jitan Ram Manjhi have called on us so far. Are they scared of the villagers?” Prasad said.

After the tragedy, the school was closed for two months. The district administration shifted the Gandaman primary school students to a middle school in the same village. Now with the new three-room building of the Gandaman primary school ready, the administration is likely to shift the students to the new school from tomorrow onwards.

Some things have changed since the tragedy. At the primary health centre in Mashrak, 9km from Gandaman, where the children were first treated, medical officer A.R. Ansari said earlier there were only two doctors on duty. Now, there are four, including a dentist. In addition, the centre has two auxiliary nurse-midwives as well.

The Telegraph found a midday meal of khichdi and chokha being served at the higher secondary school in nearby Pakri village. “The cook and I first taste the food before serving it to the children and maintain a register for that,” said the principal Kanti Kumari.

It took a tragedy of immense proportions to ensure such basic health measures.

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