Asia
3:21 am
Mon July 22, 2013

Police Hunt For Principal After Indian School Lunch Deaths

Originally published on Mon July 22, 2013 5:30 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In India, the families of the children poisoned to death by a school lunch are still reeling from that tragedy. There have been no arrests since 23 children died last week after authorities say they ingested a toxic insecticide.

As NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, the lack of police action has deepened the anguish and anger of parents already crushed under the weight of poverty.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Dr. Amar Kant Jha is superintendent of the Patna Medical College and Hospital that treated the stricken children. He described a ghoulish scene that could spring from the pages of Stephen King. The children, Jha said, were emitting toxic vapors when they were brought in.

DR. AMAR KANT JHA: Once we entered in that room, the room was so foggy, their smell was so bad, by their breath, by their expiration, vapor was coming that was making the room very foggy. It was very difficult to stand in that room. So we thought that it can only organo-phosphorus poisoning.

MCCARTHY: Organo-phosphorus is insecticide commonly used in rural areas for farming and controlling rats. The form detected in the lunch the kids ate has been banned in the United States. Administering massive doses of atropine, doctors saved 24 children and the cook who tasted the food. Most of the 23 who perished never had the chance to make that five-hour journey from their village to the state's main hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

MCCARTHY: The disaster unfolded here in Gandaman Village, where many residents farm to eke out a living. Family goats and geese take up residence in the rudimentary brick homes. The pungent smell of cow dung hangs thick in the steamy hot air. Resident Vinod Mahto lost two daughters and one son, ages 8, 6 and 5. Mahto raced back from his work far outside the village, when the news struck. He's small in stature - like many of the undernourished children here. Mahto looks shell-shocked and fixes his gaze on the green fields in the distance. My children, he says, were keen students.

VINOD MAHTO: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I'm a poor man but still managed to give them an education so that the world could not say they were illiterates, he says. Mahto says his wife is a mental wreck. Like many in the village, he puts the blame on Meena Devi, the headmistress of the now-closed, one-room school where lunch was cooked on the front stoop. Children say she scolded them when they complained that the food tasted bitter, and felt intimidated. So they ate it. A police report filed last week charges Meena Devi with murder and criminal conspiracy. She and her husband have disappeared, but Mahto says Devi enjoys political protection; otherwise, he says, she would have been arrested by now.

MAHTO: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: It's not a big job to find her, he says. If they can find Osama bin Laden, how can they not find a school principal? he asks. The sense of dismay is widely shared here. No one is in a mood to contemplate that the headmistress may be a scapegoat. Chandra Devi reclines on a makeshift bed, in a state of exhaustion after losing two of her sons, Rahul and Prahlad. Chandra says no doctors were on call, and ambulances came late. So the youngest of her 10 children died. She could only think of vengeance against the accused headmistress.

CHANDRA DEVI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Meena Devi's own son ought to be shot in front of her, Chandra says. My children died in front of her. And that way, she'll know what it feels like.

At the entrance to the village, the charred remains of police vehicles lie in a ditch. A mob set them on fire last week. But the rage has dissipated, according to one grandfather. He buried his grandson and said, now we are glued to our own sorrow and grief.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Gandaman, Bihar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.