A school close to a burial ground is something one does not normally expect to see.
School children receive treatment at a hospital after they fell ill after eating a free meal at a primary school in Bihar's Chhapra district. (AP Photo)
But the newly set up primary school in Gandaman-Dharmsati village in Mashrakh block of Saran district of north Bihar, where 22 kids died after being served contaminated mid-day meal on Tuesday, finds its campus to have been turned into one massive burial ground.
On Wednesday, the school, located 50kms from the district headquarters town of Chhapra and housed in a one-room community centre, was the scene of a huge commotion.
Angry relatives of the deceased children, who had studied in the school, arrived on the grounds and started digging graves for them. It is a practice in Bihar for Hindus to bury children below a certain age, instead of cremating them.
By 12 noon, 22 children had been laid to rest, including four right in front of the classroom, which used to echo with their giggles and unending chats till Monday.
Two other children's bodies were buried behind the school, near the Sati Sthan, even as the locals were apprehensive that more among those kids sent to Patna medical college hospital, 120 kms away could die.
With unconfirmed reports of more deaths in Patna trickling in from different sources, every now and then, the mood was explosive even as a pall of gloom hung over the school yard turned burial ground.
Thousands of people and wailing relatives were waiting there, refusing to budge. "We have buried the bodies in front of the school so that people continue to remember this tragic event for generations," said an angry Bimla Devi.
What exactly happened, nobody has a clue, though everyone appeared convinced that it was a case of poisoning - deliberate or accidental.
Headmistress of the primary school, Meena Devi, had vanished, after locking her house, located just 300 metres from the school.
The other two teachers in charge of the 150 enrolled students were also missing. Locals have lodged FIRs against the headmistress and officials responsible for monitoring the mid-day meal.
"The forensic science experts came late night on Tuesday and collected samples of the oil used for cooking, which had a bad odour. Something may have been mixed with it", said a bystander.
Others felt, some insecticide may have contaminated the cooking medium, which was kept in a plastic bottle.
"Whatever it may be, this is a clear case of murder of innocent children," said Md Saleem and Nazimuddin Khan.
The lone room in the school had telltale signs of the condition in which the students may have left.
Copies and bags still lay scattered, as did plates and glasses.
"As soon as they had eaten the meal, they felt uncomfortable and after some time started vomiting. Others had loose motion. With no facility to take care of them, they were somehow carried to the local primary health centre, which had nothing to offer by way of treatment of food poisoning cases," said Baliram Singh, a villager.
The school, which draws a bulk of its students from minority and extremely backward communities, was started in 2010. It is yet to have its own building (over 8000 schools in Bihar still run from makeshift venues), though locals say, politicians of all hues, including chief minister Nitish Kumar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad, LJP chief Ramvilas Paswan and several BJP leaders had been to the place several times to deliver speeches.
With the RJD calling Chhapra bandh and BJP also announcing the same, the entire district was at a standstill with the break of dawn, with road blockades at every nook and cranny.
Vehicles queued up along the road and all shops were closed. Mashrakh happens to be the native place of RJD Maharajganj MP Prabhunath Singh and the political impact was obvious.
The media was not allowed to enter Masrakh. This correspondent had to travel nearly 25 kms on a motorcycle to somehow reach the spot, as angry protestors were in no mood to relent to any request.
"What is left now? We want the chief minister to be here and see the tragedy," said Rajiv Kumar and Bipul Kumar Singh, both angry villagers.
The cavalcade of former deputy chief minister, Sushil Kumar Modi, leader of opposition in the assembly Nand Kishore Yadav, BJP state president Mangal Pandey and former minister Janardan Singh Sigriwal had to move from one intersection to the other for five hours before returning to Patna, as the protestors did not allow them to move towards Masrakh.
No senior official could visit the school on Wednesday.
Some did reach Chhapra, but could not muster courage to go to Mashrakh. The Mashrakh BDO, Marhoura DSP and Mashrakh police station officials did try to go to school in the morning, but had to return on foot, as their vehicles were set afire barely 400 metres from the ill-fated school.