Midday meal tragedy: Body blow to Nitish's good governance claims

The residents of the Dahrmasati Gandawan village in Mashrakh block in Bihar's Saran district, where the midday meal tragedy took place, cannot be in a forgiving mood. They have already buried the bodies of some children right in front of the school. This might be an act of rage from the families of the deceased, but the place may soon become some kind of a memorial. It would continue reviving the memories of the death of school children and breeding anger.

The response of the Nitish Kumar government and ruling JD(U) could not have been worse. It has already started crying hoarse about a political conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the state government. It has shifted the blame for the loss of 21 young lives on a primary school head-mistress under whose supervision the food was cooked and on the political rivals who created a "situation on the spot whereby a fair and impartial police probe was not possible".

HRD Minister PK Shahi did not name the Lalu Prasad-headed Rashtriya Janata Dal but dropped enough hints in that direction. He named the husband of the head-mistress who ran a local kirana shop and his relatives saying that they were active workers of a particular political party.

Nitish Kumar. PTI

Doctors attending hospitals was taken as one of the signs of good governance in Nitish's first regime and that was a reason why he was elected for a second term.  PTI

The state government's reaction is irresponsible, particularly so when in the minister's own words the police have not been able to start the investigation because of the prevailing situation on the ground. Also, there are no clear answers to the question whether an alert state government could have minimized the death toll. Who should be answerable for such delayed response to the tragic situation and for the pathetic health care system in the state?

JD(U) secretary general and spokesman KC Tyagi believes that the tragedy is an act of conspiracy to malign and destabilise the Nitish government.

"The way the opposition in Bihar is responding, I feel it is a big conspiracy. They want to destabilise the Bihar Government," he said.

The condition of some admitted in PMCH continues to be critical and the death count in Bihar midday meal poisoning could rise even further as some among those being treated are critical. It could be an accident, an act of gross negligence, or even a deliberate criminal act. The cook had informed the head-mistress that she suspected the vegetable oil was contaminated but was still given a go ahead, HRD minister PK Shahi said.

The innocent kids belonged to economically weaker sections and had had a simple meal - dal, chawal, aalo and soyabean - offered at the school by the government.

The midday meal scheme has proven to be the right incentive to improving enrollment and minimising dropout rates in government-run primary schools. The horrific incident should yet again spark the debate whether there should be an institutional monitoring mechanism for the scheme and whether fresh cooked meal for school children is a sustainable.

But the rather lackadaisical manner in which the state administration reacted to the tragedy raises some difficult questions for Nitish Kumar. The district magistrate got to know of the incident at 6 pm while the incident took place at 1 pm and there was practically no emergency response measures till late in the evening.

The ambulance carrying critically ill children from Mashrak to Saran ran out of fuel. A thoroughly ill-equipped Saran district hospital decided around mid-night that 31 affected children should be shifted to Patna Medical College hospital (PMCH). This was after the death toll had already gone up to 17. Three children died on the way from Saran to Patna hospital, and one more died in PMCH.

Violent protests have erupted in Chapra. The wounds of the incident are not going to heal soon. Nitish Kumar has so far avoided visiting either the hospital or the village where the incident took place. That could be because he senses that he could become a victim of popular anger. He has announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh to the kin of those dead. Not much on the issue has been heard of him since then.

Doctors attending hospitals was taken as one of the signs of good governance in Nitish's first regime and that was one of the reasons why people of Bihar gave an unprecedented mandate to JD(U)-BJP for the second term. But somewhere down the line in the second term, governance has slipped.

The capability of the state's supposedly premier hospital, PMCH, had come for serious questioning when the victims of the Chhath festival stampede were rushed there in October last year. The hospital's medicare facilities and infrastructure have not improved since then. The relatives of the kids fighting for life complain of lack of insufficient medical facilities and care. The BJP could be playing a politically opportunistic game because the health ministry had all along been with it while it shared power with the JD(U).

There are murmurs in the political circles that since Nitish's attention is now focused on survival of the government and strategising how to deal with Narendra Modi, the BJP, the RJD and the Congress in the next parliamentary elections, he has not been able to attend to issues of governance with the seriousness with which he used to earlier. Three incidents — Bagha firing, Bodh Gaya serial blasts and now midday meal tragedy — are being cited in this regard.