Campaigning in Bihar’s Maharajganj Lok Sabha constituency was never said to be complete without a rally on the premises of Gandaman Dharmasati Prathamik Vidyalaya. That was before the turned into a graveyard on July 16 last year.
Classes are no longer held in the school where 23 children died that day after consuming poison-laced mid-day meal. The school has also been struck off the itinerary of political parties, apparently to avoid questions from the villagers.
Maharajganj, where the RJD’s Prabhunath Singh is locked in a tough fight with BJP’s Janardan Prasad Sigriwal, goes to the polls on May 7.
The electoral quietness in Gandaman village, 30 km from Chapra town, is like the eerie silence that envelopes the school. Locals wish the leaders were sensitive enough to face them.
“The tragedy is still fresh in our minds. By avoiding us, they have rubbed salt on our wounds,” says Akhilaland Mishra, who lost his five-year-old son Ashish. His wife now has only contempt for politicians.
The only way to get even, villagers feel, is to dislodge those in power. “We are not renegades but we will not spare those who snatched away our happiness,” says Mahto, who lost three of his children.
The anger against the administration is palpable nine months after the incident that put a big question mark on the mid-day meal scheme in Bihar. “Why does the government run such schemes when there is no monitoring?” asks Bali Mahto, whose son died in that tragedy.
Mishra, the first to lodge an FIR against teacher Meena Devi and her husband – they are in jail for allegedly supplying the groceries containing toxic organo-phosphorous compound – says the children would not have died if the authorities checked how food is prepared.
The villagers are unimpressed with the initiatives the Nitish Kumar regime had undertaken to develop Gandaman as a model village after the tragedy. The village sports a memorial for the deceased children, a new anganwadi kendra and a renovated community centre.
“These face-saving projects cannot bring our children back,” says Raju Sah, whose five-year-old daughter Laxmi was among the 23 victims.
Mid-day meals in Bihar undergo better quality control today, but the fear factor makes children of Gandaman – they go to a new primary school – turn their faces away. “I am scared of eating the sarkari food. Tiffin le jaatey hain…,” says Chandan Kumar, a class 3 student who lost his siblings last year.