July 19: Three days have passed since 23 children perished from eating a meal that is served with the guarantee of the government, but neither chief minister Nitish Kumar nor any of his ministers has yet paid a visit to the death-struck hamlets.
The ruling party has said the chief minister is “pained” by the deaths at Dharmasati and Gandaman villages of Saran and will speak when he has reports of the investigation.
“The chief minister is pained by the incident because the nature of the event is disturbing and shocking. He might speak on the issue once all the reports and the outcome of the investigations come to him,” said Legislative Council member Devesh Thakur, said to have the ears of the chief minister.
Nitish, who has been going through a trying time over the past few weeks starting with the divorce from the BJP and the Bodhgaya blasts, suffered a hairline fracture — on Saturday — in the little toe of his left foot. He had gone to Kankerbagh to condole the death of social worker Bijendra Prasad when his foot struck a heavy piece of furniture, leading to the injury. Doctors have advised him rest for 21 days.
That hasn’t stopped Nitish, whose injured toe is strapped, from holding meetings at his 1 Aney Marg residence, although he has not stepped out of the premises since Saturday. He was present at his weekly Janata Durbar on Monday — he was even seen walking over to meet some of the applicants; on Tuesday, he presided over a cabinet meeting; on Wednesday, he held a meeting with education minister P.K. Shahi and yesterday, he had a meeting with the country director of Unicef, Louis-Georges Arsenault. He also held a review meeting of the health department yesterday.
The chief minister had been quick to visit Bodhgaya on the very day the serial blasts hit the shrine on July 7. But so far, the only statement from Nitish on the Saran tragedy has come in the form of a terse press note, issued on the evening of Tuesday, when the meal of death was served, in which he expressed “shock” and announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the families of the dead children.
Education minister Shahi did take time out to address a news conference on Wednesday in which he pointed to the possibility of the presence of insecticides in the meal served. But he also sought to give a political flavour to the tragedy by suggesting that the grocer who supplied the food ingredients was a supporter of an Opposition party (read RJD) that is popular in the region. The question that went unasked is if the minister knew of the corrupt practices of the supplier, why didn’t he take action against him? The grocer, Arjun Rai, and his wife, the principal of Gandaman Primary School, where the students studied, are still on the run.
Politicians are known to dash to places struck by tragedies or disasters, but in this case, not one member of the ruling establishment has thought it necessary to make the 90-km journey to Saran.
Even principal secretary, education, Amarjeet Sinha or his health counterpart, Vyasji, haven’t had the time to go to Saran. The government deemed it fit to despatch midday meal director R. Laxmanan and education project director, Rahul Singh, officials much junior in the hierarchy.
There are two views on VVIP visits to places hit by tragedies. In regions struck by natural disasters, it is advisable that VVIPs stay away as they tend to distract relief operations, like what happened in Uttarakhand.
But the crisis in Saran was not a continuing one. The visit by the chief minister, who has harped on his social welfare measures to claim sushasan or good governance, would have served as a morale booster. More so because, across the state, parents are advising their children to avoid eating the free lunch served to them in school. Also, as a source pointed out, the government will have to ensure that the tragedy doesn’t lead to dropout from schools.
Former Union minister and BJP vice-president C.P. Thakur agreed. “He is the chief minister of the state and it will be a huge moral boost for those who have lost their children. His visit will also give them some solace. At least Nitish can tell them that it is not the fault of the government,” said Thakur, himself a renowned doctor.
Some doctors, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if the pain wasn’t too unbearable, Nitish could have driven to the Saran hamlets, met the villagers and come back — the entire trip would have lasted some 8-10 hours.
“In case of a hairline fracture in the toe or any finger on the foot, the patient can walk some distance although he will feel a mild pain,” said an orthopaedic surgeon, who did not wish to be named.
He said the patient can also travel in a car with some support beneath the injured foot.
The Opposition has been quick to hit out at Nitish. “This is the height of insensitivity,” said BJP leader Giriraj Singh. “The incident is unfortunate and after Uttarakhand, it is the biggest tragedy. However, the chief minister does not have the time to make a public statement. The kids who died were not my children or Sushil Modi’s children. They were the children of poor persons. The chief minister does not have the moral strength to take responsibility for it.”
Ram Kirpal Yadav of the RJD was even more scathing. “The chief minister has time for his Janata Durbar and review meetings. But he does not get the time to meet parents who have lost their children in the tragedy. He has not even visited PMCH where some of the children are undergoing treatment. Even if he has a hairline fracture, he should have gone to PMCH in a wheel-chair,” he said.