Governments are prone to developing schemes, presumably with the intent to demonstrate their interest in welfare. Let us deliver education free to children below the age of fourteen. Let us give girls a bicycle so they can get to school easily. Let us give all children a free hot meal for lunch, because this addresses their malnutrition while also serving as an incentive for the poor to send their children to school.

These well-intentioned schemes themselves appear eerily diabolical, however, when for example we hear that this hot mid-day meal caused the deaths of 23 children who ate it, as it contained poison. This is what happened in Gandaman village of Saran district, Bihar on 16 July. A forensic report released several days after the tragedy showed that the chemical monocrotophos had been found in the oil and in samples of the froth from the mouth of one of the children. This is a banned substance in several countries, but is used in pesticides in India.

The level of monocrotophos found was five times more than what is found in average pesticides. "The expiration from the children was so strong when they came into the hospital that it fogged up the glass panes," said Amar Kant Jha, the Superintendent of Patna Medical College and Hospital where the children were finally treated.

This was after their parents had tried their luck at medical facilities in Masrakh, and then in Chhapra. None of these hospitals were able to correctly diagnose what the children were suffering from, and the tortured children had to then travel ninety kilometres to Patna. there, they were put on a massive treatment of atropine and the anti-poison PAM. Jha says that they do get a few cases every month of poisonings due to pesticide. A senior police official who was part of the initial investigation said, "We allow chemicals of such toxicity to be sold and used, as we try to aid farming. But it doesn't occur to us to ensure that peripheral hospitals are stocked with basic medicines like atropine to deal with these poisonings."

The death of the children of Gandaman has also meant the death of 23 dreams and hopes of what education could have done for these families. A sizable chunk of Gandaman’s next generation is no more.

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In the Union Budget released for this year, the government has allocated Rs.13,215 crores for the mid-day meal scheme. The scheme suffers from many problems; moreover, it appears that much of this money is being poorly utilised. A study released by the Center for Policy Research identifies poor record keeping, limited human resources, lack of information flow and coordination across all levels of government, and weak monitoring and grievance redress systems as some of the reasons that affect the transfer of food grains and funds. These hiccups often mean that mid-day meal providers will compromise on quality, time or scrutiny in order to simply fulfill their responsibilities.

The death of the children of Gandaman has also meant the death of 23 dreams and hopes of what education could have done for these families. A sizable chunk of Gandaman's next generation is no more. Twenty five others, including one of the cooks who prepared the meal, were critically ill and were in hospital for many days before they could be released. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, while travelling through Gandaman in Bihar on assignment, I saw and felt for myself the abject despondence, sadness and anger that hung over the village.

Picture credits: Anoo Bhuyan