“We are small people. What can we really do about this?” asks Surendra Prasad, perched on the steps outside the Patna Medical College and Hospital in the state capital of Bihar in eastern India.
Inside, two of his young children are recovering in the intensive care unit. His wife has also been admitted, in shock after another child, their 10-year-old daughter, Mamta, died along with 22 other children who ate a free school midday meal in their village last Tuesday. Authorities say the food was tainted with high concentrations of toxic insecticide.
Mamta’s grandmother breaks down describing how the little girl slipped away.
“She was saying to me, ‘Don’t worry — everything will be all right,’ then suddenly she died,” says the elderly woman, her face etched in grief.
The pain that has enveloped the village mourning the loss of its children is compounded by unrelenting poverty. These families, like hundreds of millions who inhabit rural India, live in the shadows of the spectacular economic rise that has lifted millions of other Indians out of poverty in the past decade.
This week, India’s Planning Commission trumpeted a record drop in poverty, saying it has fallen from 37 percent of the population to 22 percent over the past seven years.
The extent of the decline ignited debate. Critics argue that the commission’s poverty line is set at an absurdly low level — 32 rupees, or 54 cents per day per capita — which conceals the true scale of poverty in India. They say a more realistic poverty line would mean that a much larger number of people would be classified as poor.
In 2011, two young Indians, Tushar Vashisht and Mathew Cherian, undertook an experiment to see what it was like to live on 100 rupees a day (about $2). They dropped weight, became lethargic from the lack of food and had to walk almost everywhere as they described being restricted to a 3-mile “circle of life.”
Every resident I spoke to in Gandaman village where the poisoning occurred told me, “We live below the poverty line.”
In Bihar, that amounts to 44 cents a day.
The villagers need no statistics to know where they stand in India’s pecking order.
Harendra Kumar Mishra, who lost his two youngest children in the tragedy, said, “We are not taken care of by any public representative or the administration.”
Take the roads. The bone-crunching trip from Bihar’s capital, Patna, to Gandaman takes five hours. The distances are not great, only 87 miles, but the roads are in disastrous condition. Parents believe poor highways, lack of hospitals and insufficient medical supplies cost them their children’s lives.
The one-room elementary school where the insecticide-laced lunch was served is void of any equipment, infrastructure, or even glass on the windows.
With no kitchen, the free midday meal that killed the children was cooked on the front stoop. The headmistress Meena Devi, was arrested this week after eight days on the run, and said she was falsely implicated.
Elsewhere in Bihar, 300,000 teachers boycotted the government feeding program this week and refused to supervise the cooking of the meals because they said it interfered with teaching.
Still more handicaps face India’s rural poor.
Chandra Devi, a mother of 10, said, “We’re so poor, I could not afford to have an operation” to reduce the number of pregnancies. Her husband, Mishra, says they wanted to have fewer children, but couldn’t manage enough money “for any small operation either for me or my wife.”
Mishra says, “I consoled my wife, by saying the children will grow, they will earn, and they will bring happiness to the family.”
The untimely deaths of their two youngest children have brought only anguish.
A sense of defeat also pervades the villagers here.
“What are we to the politicians?” asks Surendra Prasad.
“I’m helpless,” says Makeshwar Ram, who buried his grandson in front of the elementary school where the boy ate his last meal. It is inconceivable to Ram that this impoverished community could ever influence the top politicians of the state: “In no way can we call the chief minister here,” he says. “Even thinking of this is a dream for us.”
It says something about the distance between the governed and the governors of India that the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has not ventured to the village where the children died.
Kumar says he is unable to make the trip because he’s recovering from a fractured toe. People who have lost their children cannot comprehend this. Yet, like so many other indignities, they can only endure it.
Anoo Bhuyan contributed to this report