One is Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s ancestral home. The other is his adopted village that he pledged to turn into a model village after the tragic death of 23 children.
One is nurtured with funds, education and periodic visits by the CM. The other left uncared for, with broken infrastructure, and a restive population seething at the step-motherly treatment.
One is the village of Kalyan Bigha in Bihar’s Nalanda district that has a bank, an ATM and round-the-clock electricity, a rarity for the impoverished state.
The other, Gandamal village in Saran district, is a mere 36 kilometres away, but doesn’t seem to have recovered from the tragedy of July 16, 2013 when 23 children lost their live after eating their mid-day meals.
As one approaches Kalyan Bigha, four structures stand out from a distance -- a power sub-station, a two-storied hospital building painted red, a high school and an industrial training institute.
In contrast, 150 boys and girls are housed in a run-down government school building in Gandamal, who were not fed their mid-day meal for a month. Intense media pressure restored the basic service only last week.
The ghosts of July 2013 still linger. Three children who survived the poisonous food feel a constant itching in the eyes and blurred vision. They aren’t the only ones – the after-effects of the mid-day meals are widespread, villagers say.
“A health centre was set up in the village after the incident but the doctor is hardly present. I am worried about my child’s vision. Treatment at city is very costly, we can’t afford it,” said Surendra Rai, the uncle of one of the children. He lost his daughter Mamata and nine members of the family in the tragedy which includes his brother’s children.
But what infuriates the villagers the most is that Kumar never visited the village after the incident.
“It was the biggest tragedy of Bihar, still the king never came to see his praja (subjects). This village has voted for his party in record numbers in the past elections,” said Raju Sah, who too lost his daughter in the tragedy.
In contrast, any villager at Kalyan Bigha remembers the exact dates when Kumar visits the village.
“Nitishji comes thrice a year and sometimes even four to five times. Last year, he came during Durga Puja also,” said Raj Kapoor Sahu, a local resident.
But neglecting villages such as Gandamal may come back to haunt Kumar in the upcoming high-stakes Bihar elections, where his grand alliance is up against a BJP-led saffron coalition.
“Do you think anyone would vote for the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal coalition this time? Definitely not,” Sah said.
Villagers pointed to a clutch of developmental projects announced by the CM – such as the construction of three village lanes, a panchayat bhawan – where no work has started. These announcements were the “price of 23 deaths”, they said.