Many more in the poor, rural village of Chapra were hospitalized in serious condition. The food is believed to have been poisoned by pesticides.
The tragedy was the worst incident in a rash of apparently tainted school lunches. In a separate incident in Bihar's Madhubani district, 15 students fell ill after eating mid-day meals. In Gaya-Bihar, one student was killed after eating school lunch there. And in another separate incident in Dhule in the district of Maharashtra, 31 children were hospitalized after having their mid-day meals.
The mid-day meal scheme, which began in the 1960's, is one of India's oldest and aims to encourage marginalized classes to send their children to schools. Besides the education, a meal for every student is given as an incentive for enrollment. However, ever since the start of the scheme, reports of embezzlement of food meant for children have consistently surfaced. A 2006 news report found that students of a primary school in Darjeeling were deprived of their meals for 18 months.
The issue has, as expected, taken a political twist. The political party in power has alleged that the opposition has indulged in a conspiracy to frame them. The school principal's husband is reported to be a political figure who was responsible for supplying food to the school.
The negligence on the part of the government angered many on social networking sites.
India-based Twitter user Vikram Singh (@cynicalvs) wrote:
As soon as journalists began reaching hospitals to report on the situation, more mismanagement came to surface. The streamed video images showed surviving children laid next to each other crammed on a desk and saline water being administered.
Milind Khandekar, the managing editor of ABP News (@milindkhandekar), observed:
@milindkhandekar: Pictures from Chappra shows relatives using paper fan for children admitted in the hospital. Is this ‘ Bihar model of development?
This incident, soon enough, prompted users on social media to discuss negligence and arrogance of Indian politicians.
Abhijit Majumder, a journalist from Delhi (@abhijitmajumder), tweeted:
Another Delhi-based journalist, Raghavendra Verma (@r_verma), made a commentary on the general attitude of the teachers at these government run schools:
Fazal Abbas (@fazlabas), a Mumbai-based Twitter user, brought some historical perspective to the ongoing discourse:
@fazlabas: Chhapra is same as our first president Dr. Rajendra Prasad left half century back. Children are dying for education.
Kiran Bedi (@thekiranbedi), a former police officer from Delhi who is recognized for her philanthropic activities and anti-corruption crusade in India, tweeted:
@thekiranbedi: Mid-day meals, at places r a scandal and un-hygienic. Teachers too r wasting time cooking!Why not serve fruits and nuts?
Bedi's narrative corroborates with the above photographic evidence. Not just Bihar, government run schools, across India, may have bigger stories of negligence and mismanagement to tell. As far as this case is concerned, the Indian government was quick to announce a compensation of 2 lakhs (about 3,367 US dollars) to the victims family.
The exact cause of how the food became contaminated is being studied – in short, a long bureaucratic process follows. Will those guilty be held accountable?