A toxic lesson in despair

Photographs by: Ravi S Sahani

The village looks as if the grim reaper paid a surprise visit. One can still hear the faint cries of wailing mothers. It has been five days since the mid-day meal contaminated with a deadly insecticide served at the Gandaman lower primary school killed 23 children on 16 July. Twenty-seven more are battling for their lives at a Patna hospital. Almost all of them are aged below 10.

With a population of 3,000 people, Gandaman is located in Saran district of Bihar. The government school in question was nothing but a 30×20 ft hall, which was run by headmistress Meena Kumari and another teacher. On that fateful day, close to 80 students were present in the school.

Just before serving lunch, the 40-year-old cook, Manju Devi, alerted the headmistress about the suspicious quality of the oil that was being used. Kumari reportedly persisted that Devi serve the same food to the children.

Several parents allege that Kumari had “forced” the children to eat the meal, despite the soya bean curry being foul-smelling and black in colour. Within five minutes of having consumed the food, the children complained of stomach ache and went into a fit of uncontrollable vomiting. Forensic experts later said that the soya bean curry had traces of phosphorus found in pesticides.

Still, the damage could have been contained. But, the manner in which the local administration and doctors dealt with the situation led to so many casualties.

To begin with, the villagers were unable to comprehend what had happened to their kids. They tried everything from administering lemon juice to water, hoping that the vomiting would stop. When none of this worked, they decided to take the kids to the nearest hospital at Masrakh town 13 km away.

Doctors at the Masrakh government hospital were clueless about handling the symptoms. To make matters worse, as Rameshwar Mahto and two other parents allege, one Dr Ansari told the families he could not treat the children as he was observing roza (Ramzan fasting). Even the private hospital at Masrakh was of no help. The initial diagnoses by the doctors at both the hospitals were quite off the mark. By the time the parents made it to hospitals in Masrakh, three children had already succumbed.

As the doctors at Masrakh pleaded helplessness, the families took their kids to a government hospital in Chhapra, 55 km away. By then, three hours had passed. At Chhapra, 16 children died in their parents’ arms. Doctors at Chhapra too failed to understand the nature of the toxicity. They also found it difficult to handle the large number of patients.

The parents then embarked on a three-hour-long journey to Patna. Four kids died on the way. At the Patna Medical College and Hospital, doctors finally got the diagnosis right and Atropine — an agent that helps the body cope with phosphorus poisoning — was administered to the children.

Whereas Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has hinted that the poisoning could be a conspiracy, Education Secretary Amarjeet Sinha calls it a case of gross criminal negligence, where four key instructions were flouted by Kumari.

“From what we found, the headmistress broke four rules that day,” says Sinha. “First, insecticide was mixed with oil. Second, she did not listen to the cook. Third, she did not listen to the children. Fourth and most importantly, she did not taste the food herself. Since March 2012, there are clear directions that the school principals have to taste the food before they serve it. But she did not do so. Whether there was a conspiracy is for the Special Investigation Team to find out.”

More than a week has passed but no heads have rolled so far. Kumari, who had been absconding, moved an anticipatory bail petition at a local court on 24 July. After the court rejected her application, she surrendered before the police.

However, the truth remains that the state government is trying to pin the entire blame on Kumari. An arbitrary rule brought in July 2006 states that the senior-most teacher at a school automatically becomes the headmistress until local authorities officially appoint one. As activist Apoorvanand pointed out in a recent article, Kumari was not officially appointed. The case also exposes the state government’s failure to ensure healthcare for its citizens beyond Patna.

This fiscal, the Centre has allocated Rs 11,937 crore for implementing the mid-day meal scheme. As Sinha points out, the biggest problem in the scheme’s implementation has been inadequate infrastructure. “There are 73,260 schools in Bihar where we provide mid-day meals,” he says. “But we have not been able to find adequate land for 9,000 schools. We have found that if you have all the infrastructure in place, the school management committees work more effectively.”

TEHELKA met families of all the 23 children who died in the tragedy. One sentiment that was common among them was that this tragedy should never happen to any parent who trusts the school to provide healthy food.


Aarti Kumari | 8 | Class III
Shanti Kumari | 6 | Class I
Bikas Kumar | 5 | Class I

‘Why do you media people speak to us if you aren’t going to make it public as you ought to?’

Binod Mahto | 32 | Father
Binod Mahto | 32 | Father
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

Binod Mahto’s family has suffered the most casualties in the mid-day meal tragedy. The 32-year-old lost all three of his children. His wife Buchchi Devi has not stopped crying since 16 July. She has a voice that is growing faint by the minute; however, her tears don’t seem to stop.

“We lost three children,” says Binod’s father Ramesh. “This is a complete failure on the part of the entire system. Politicians tried to manipulate us even when we were at the hospital. When we went to Chhapra hospital, one Dr Ansari told us that he could not attend to our children as he had to keep his roza (fasting).”

Binod didn’t utter a single word inside his house. Once he stepped outside an hour later, he opened up: “Despite the fact that I have lost all my children, I spoke to every news channel that came to my house, answered every question they asked. Yet none of them reported it. I spoke because I don’t want this to happen to any parent. Why do you media people speak to us if you aren’t going to make it public as you ought to?”

Deepu Kumari | 5 | Class I

‘I would have sold everything to get her educated. Now we live like corpses’

Ajay Kumar
Ajay Kumar | 26 | Father
Photo:Ravi S Sahani


My Deepu wanted to become a police officer,” says Ajay Kumar. “She wanted to go to Delhi. She would playfully tell her mother that she would come back as a police officer and shoot her.”

Kumar had to plead with the ambulance driver before he got a little space to take his daughter to the Chhapra hospital where she succumbed. Kumar, who has studied until Class IX, grows paddy and wheat on his 1 bigha plot and earns about Rs 4,000 a month. “I would have sold everything to get her educated,” says Kumar, who also has a four-month-old daughter. “Now we live like corpses.”

His wife Sarita Devi is in a state of shock and cries inconsolably when reminded of Deepu. The only remaining picture of the little girl is of her lying on the Chhapra government hospital floor that was published on the front page of the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabhar.


Baby Devi | 7 | Class III

‘She was eager to go to school that day as they were distributing textbooks’

Lalti Devi | 50 | Mother
Lalti Devi | 50 | Mother
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

She was always stubborn,” recalls Baby’s mother Lalti Devi. “She wasn’t feeling well that day. I pleaded with her not to go to school. However, she was too eager to go as they were distributing textbooks that day.” Tragically, a Hindi news channel crew took away the last remaining picture of the girl and haven’t returned it.

Rahul | 10 | Class IV
Prahlad | 7 | Class II

‘With 10 children to feed, toiling in the fields was never enough’

Harendra Mishra
Harendra Mishra | 46 | Father
Photo: Ravi S Sahani

The mid-day meal scheme was a boon for Harendra Mishra, 46, who has nine sons and a daughter. The boon turned into a curse on 16 July as two of his sons, Rahul and Prahlad, succumbed to the poison. Toiling in the fields had never brought the household enough income. Mishra’s three elder sons, who work in Gurgaon and Ludhiana, send some money but even that was never enough. Now, Mishra wonders who will feed his kids.



Suman Kumari | 11 | Class IV
Rohit | 5 | Class I

‘The question is whether you can afford Rs 25 for a kg of rice’

Lal Bahadur Prasad | 40 | Father
Lal Bahadur Prasad | 40 | Father
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

Pano devi, 38, is desperate to find a nurse as her daughter Nisha, 5, writhes in pain inside the ICU. Her elder daughter Poonam, 18, goes out of the room in search of one. Neither woman has eaten anything for four days. Pano has already lost a daughter, Suman, 11, and Nisha’s twin brother Rohit. As Poonam calls for a nurse to ease Nisha’s pain, Pano rubs the girl’s chest in the same hope.

In Gandaman, TEHELKA met Pano’s husband Lal Bahadur Prasad, 40. Sitting in a shed outside his house, he calls for the rest of the family to come out when he learns that this reporter met his wife and daughters in Patna. He heaves a sigh of relief when he hears that Nisha is out of danger. Prasad had to stay back to carry out the final rites of his other two children. While Suman died at the Chhapra hospital, Rohit succumbed on the way to Patna.

Prasad, who works as a construction labourer in Yamuna Nagar, Haryana, had come home on 15 days’ leave. “It did not make a difference to us whether our kids ate their meal at the school or at home. They would come home for lunch very often,” he says. “I earn up to Rs 4,000-5,000 per month. I could barely send Rs 500 home. At the end of it, the question is whether you can afford Rs 25 for a kg of rice or not. We own a small plot, but that does not bring much.”

“Life in the city is tough. You never know whether you can earn enough for your next meal, forget sending home anything,” he says. “I would have let them study as long as I could afford their education. I will work on whatever is left and take care of my other two children.” Now, Prasad has decided not to go back to Haryana.

A Hindi television news channel crew covering the tragedy took away the last remaining photograph of Suman, leaving the family with only memories of what she used to look like.

Kajol Kumari | 5 | Class I

‘I don’t have the courage to send my other kids to school after this’

Ramanand Rai | 35 | Father
Ramanand Rai | 35 | Father
Photo: Ravi S Sahani

After losing his daughter, Ramanand Rai, 35, has doubts about sending his other three children to school. “I would have ensured that they study at least until Class XII,” he says. “If my surviving daughter has nothing more in the future except making rotis, what good is further education? I don’t have the courage to send them to school after this.”

There are no pictures of Kajol anywhere in the house. “The only time we posed for a photograph as a family was when we applied for a BPL card,” says Rai, a farmer. Kajol died while being taken to the government hospital in Chhapra.





Shiva Kumar | 7 | Class II

‘I wanted him to become a big officer, not run a shop like I do’

Raju Sah | 35 | Father
Raju Sah | 35 | Father
Photo: Ravi S Sahani

Raju Sah, 35, runs a general store in Gandaman. His only son Shiva loved soya beans so much that he would come to the store and take away soya beans, leaving aside sweets at times. On 16 July, Sah’s elder daughter Laxmi, who goes to the same school, decided to skip lunch after smelling the food. But Shiva had the soya beans curry despite the foul smell. He died just before doctors at Chhapra hospital could treat him. Sah breaks down as he tells us that he wanted to see Shiva grow up to be a “big officer”. “He wouldn’t have run a shop like I do,” says Sah, who also has a nine-month-old daughter.




Roshan Kumar | 9 | Class III

‘I couldn’t even be there by my son’s side when he died. There was no space in the ambulance’

Hevanti Devi
Hevanti Devi | 34 | Mother
Photo: Ravi S Sahani

Roshan Kumar’s mother laments that she could not be there by his side when he died. “I had to get back to the village as there was no space in the ambulance,” says Hevanti Devi. The 34-year-old sits outside her house, breaking down every time she remembers her son. Her husband Balram Mishra, 37, runs a kirana shop and his busy work schedule has allowed him very little time to mourn.

Rahul Ram | 8 | Class II

‘I studied only up to Class VI but I wanted to make him an engineer’

Satyendra Ram | 32 | Father
Satyendra Ram | 32 | Father
Photo: Ravi S Sahani

In Gandaman, there is a segregated area called the ‘Harijan tola’, where the Dalits live far away from the caste families. Rahul was the only pupil from the area to study at the Gandaman school. For Satyendra Ram, 32, who works as a construction labourer in Ludhiana earning about 4,000- 5,000 a month, Rahul was the carrier of his dreams. “Rahul was unbelievably good in English,” he says. “I studied only up to Class VI. My wife has not gone to school at all. I had decided that I’d make an engineer out of him.” Adds Satyendra’s brother Ramesh, “Despite being only in Class II, Rahul was going to tuition at four places. Each place cost Satyendra 200 each per month. They were spending so much on him because he was the smartest kid in the area. He had even begun to teach English alphabets to his bhabhi every day.”

Nirav Mahto | 6 | Class II

‘Nirav is gone. My wife is ill. Once she is alright, I will go back to Delhi to sell ice cream’

Nirav Mahto | 6 | Class II
Krishna Mahto | 27 | Father
Photo: Ravi S Sahani

Krishna Mahto was selling ice cream to kids near the Palam airport in New Delhi when he got a phone call saying that his son was among those who had died in the mid-day meal tragedy. It took him three trains, three buses and one bike ride over two days to get home for his son’s funeral and console his other son and daughter. Mahto, 27, is unbelievably composed even though tears still betray his feelings when he speaks about his son’s death. “Nirav is gone. My wife is ill. Once she is alright, I will go back to Delhi to sell ice creams,” he says. “All kinds of people buy ice cream from my stall. Rich kids, poor kids, men, women, old folks…”



Rita Kumari | 9 | Class IV

‘How long we would have supported her education doesn’t count. She isn’t around anymore’

Shushila Devi | 35 | Mother
Shushila Devi | 35 | Mother
Photo: Ravi S Sahani

Nanhak Mahto, 44, quietly lights the evening fire, even as his wife Shushila Devi, 35, sobs in a corner. Rita was the youngest daughter of Mahto, who works as a labourer at a carton factory in Rajasthan. He has three other daughters, one of whom is already married. “I don’t think the question of how long we would have supported her education counts… she is not around anymore,” he says.

Kajol Kumari | 10 | Class IV

‘After my husband’s death, I worked hard in the fields to bring up my four daughters’

Malti Devi | 55 | Mother
Malti Devi | 55 | Mother
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

Malti Devi, 55, struggles to speak more than three sentences at a stretch. “This should never happen to any parent,” she says. “When my husband died nine years ago, I worked hard in the fields to bring up my four daughters. Kajol wanted to study until intermediate (Class XII). I would have done whatever it takes to fulfil that.”

Khushbu Kumari | 5 | Class I
Aansu Kumar | 6 | Class I

‘The government has bought a poor man’s silence with a cheque of Rs 2 lakh’

Teras Prasad Yadav
Teras Prasad Yadav | 35 | Father
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

It took Teras Prasad Yadav two days and two nights to reach his village to carry out the last rites of his daughter, Khushbu, 5, and his nephew, Aansu, 6.

Khushbu died while being taken to Chhapra from Masarakh hospital. Aansu was the first child to die while being taken to the Masarakh hospital.

Yadav, 35, who migrated to Delhi two decades ago, has been working as a helper at a provision store in Palam for a salary of Rs 8,000 per month. “I couldn’t leave on 16 July itself,” he says. “My employer did not grant me leave that day. I left the next day. There was no means of transport on the first day either.”

Roshni Kumari, the eldest of Yadav’s three daughters, was studying in the same school. She is undergoing treatment. Yadav’s wife Renu Devi, 28, has not recovered from the shock and had to be hospitalised.

Yadav wanted to educate his kids as much as they wished. “My children never liked the lunch served at the school,” he says. “Roshni wanted me to change her school. She used to complain that there’s no learning at that school. That day, the headmistress forced the children to eat the meal even though the soya bean curry was black in colour.”

Yadav is a shattered man despite getting compensation from the government. “I’m an illiterate man. My wife did not agree with taking the compensation money. The government has bought a poor man’s silence by handing him a cheque of Rs 2 lakh,” he says.

Yadav says he would have preferred a job any day as opposed to this dole for the children’s deaths.

Ashish Kumar | 41/2

‘Ashish was part of a gang of eight kids. We let him go to the school with them’

Akhilanand Mishra | 42 | Father
Akhilanand Mishra | 42 | Father
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

He was not even supposed to be there. But a strong bond of friendship cost Ashish his life. “Ashish was part of a gang of eight kids. Mantu and Anshu, our neighbour’s kids, were also part of it,” says his father Akhilanand Mishra, 42. “They would play every day on our verandah. Ashish would accompany them even to their school. As he eventually had to go to the same school, we let him go with them.” Now, that decision has come back to haunt them. Every time Mishra’s wife Putul Devi, 32, hears someone uttering the name of her son, she starts wailing.

Mishra grows paddy and wheat on his half-acre plot and earns about Rs 7,000 a month. Because he couldn’t make both ends meet, he would always do odd jobs to ensure that his three children got a good education. “Ashish and his friends would be here all the time. They would be playing on our verandah until 9 pm, until their parents came looking for them. Today, look what has happened to the gang,” he says fighting back his tears.

Soni Kumari | 8 | Class III

‘They gave us Rs 2 lakh. This is how they slap the poor on the face’

Nagendra Mahto
Nagendra Mahto | 30 | Father
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

Nagendra Mahto always used to beam with pride whenever his daughter spoke English. “Soni used to speak very good English,” remembers Mahto, 30, who owns a kirana shop. “I had told her that she could become a doctor or an artist. I could never become an artist owing to poverty.” Adds Mahto, who has two other daughters, “The government gave us a compensation of Rs 2 lakh. This is how they slap the poor on the face.” His wife Savita Devi, 28, requires medical care as she is yet to recover from the shock.

Anshu Kumar | 5 | Class I

‘My children never liked the food at school. But we didn’t have a choice’

Ranjit Kumar | 14 | Brother
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

Lying on bed No 10 in the general ward, Mantu Kumar, 8, looks pale and dehydrated. Dried froth is still visible on the edges of his mouth. His mother Dyanti Devi, 40, is perched next to him, listening intently. Mantu does not have the energy to utter anything beyond a whisper. As he moves his lips, she deciphers the word “paani”. She quickly reaches for the water jug, fills a glass to the brim and helps him drink some. He manages all of three sips.

Devi has been keeping vigil at her son’s bedside since 17 July with a sense of desperation that is probably indescribable. She has already lost a son, Anshu Kumar. And now she’s doing everything in her power to save Mantu.

Devi has not eaten anything at all these days, except a few morsels of rice the previous night. “When you have lost a child, it’s difficult to think of anything else,” says her brother-in-law Dharamnath Mahto. “Please don’t ask Mantu about Anshu. We haven’t told him that Anshu is gone.”

Devi, who has three sons, had wanted to ensure that they did not end up as unlettered, agricultural labourers. “My children never liked the food at school,” she says. “But we are not people who are spoilt for choice.”

TEHELKA met Devi’s eldest son Ranjit Kumar, 14, a Class IX student, who was figuring out ways to preserve the last remaining photograph of his brother.

Priyanka Kumari | 10 | Class IV

‘Priyanka is dead. Please save my Preeti’

Manju Mahto
Manju Mahto | 32 | Mother
Photo:Ravi S Sahani

Lal Deo Mahto, 36, is holding on to his younger daughter Preeti, 6, who fell ill after eating the mid-day meal. His elder daughter Priyanka was not so lucky. She died while being taken to Patna. Mahto, a construction labourer, politely asked this reporter to leave him alone. Back in the village, TEHELKA visited his house where his wife, Manju lies expressionless, answering only in gestures. When informed that Preeti is recovering, all she managed to utter was: “Please save my Preeti.”




  1. Mr G Vishnu, I don’t mean to be heartless, however I wish you would have asked one question to poor people; why have kids if you can’t get food for them. Why Mr Mishra had 11 kids if he can’t fulfill basic needs? It does not matter how best the government tries, the corruption, mismanagement and degradation are bound to happen. It’s important that parents understand their own duty. And if they delegate it to somebody else for something like food, they can expect that the life of their kids is in someone else hand.


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