Mid-day meal tragedy: School principal arrested; Nitish Kumar defends response

Nitish Kumar hit out at his critics for attacking him for keeping mum on the mid-day meal tragedy tragedy.

Zee Media Bureau

Patna: On a day when the absconding principal of a Bihar government school - where a poisonous mid-day meal on July 16 claimed the lives of 23 children and hospitalised tens others – was arrested, state Chief Minister Nitish Kumar defended his government`s response to the tragedy.

Nitish hit out at his critics for attacking him for keeping mum on the tragedy, saying it was his ill-health that had prevented him from visiting Chhapra in Saran district.

The CM was speaking at a press conference in Patna, shortly after the news of Meena Devi`s arrest came.

"We arrested her (Meena Devi) from Chhapra town," Saran district superintendent of police and head of the special investigation team Sujeet Kumar said.

State police chief Abhyanand, who was present at the CM`s press meet, said the absconding principal of Dharmasati Gandaman primary school in Chhapra in Saran district has been arrested and she did not surrender.

Nitish, meanwhile, said he was "deeply saddened by the incident" and had been "monitoring the situation constantly".

"Why I didn’t go there, why was I quiet, a lot of discussion took place on this. I couldn`t visit because my leg was injured and at least the local media knows it," Nitish told reporters.

"We did all what we could do," he added.

"It is not an ordinary incident," Nitish said further, adding "in my public life, it has been one of the most saddening and heart wrenching incidents". "How could someone be an enemy of children?" he asked.

Promising that those behind the incident will be punished, the JD(U) leader said the matter is being investigated and all angles will be probed.

"The children had alerted many times about the quality of food. We will probe why warnings were not heeded to," Nitish said. "The quantity of pesticide was so much that it indicates something," he said further, hinting at a conspiracy destabilise his government.

"The conspiracy has been confirmed in the Forensic Science Laboratory report as well in the versions of natives of Mashrakh where the incident took place," Nitish, who came before the media for the first time after the Chhapra incident on Tuesday last week, said.

An SIT has already been formed, the CM informed.

Echoing Kumar`s `conspiracy` theory, Bihar Director General of Police Abhayanand said prima facie it appears that the presence of poison in huge quantity in the food for children cannot be due to mistake and the Forensic Science Laboratory findings about huge quantity of poison by way of pesticide organo phosphorous are `outstanding observations`.

"In criminal science the degree of injury proves the intent behind the crime," he said.

Nitish further vowed to take measures to improve the mid-day meal scheme and its security.

"We will also speak to the Centre on the issue. We should not shift the blame on the Centre or vice versa. It is a national scheme; we have to run it and we take it as a challenge."

Nitish did not name the BJP and the RJD but hit out at the opposition parties, asking "how could someone call a bandh when they should be helping the victims?"

"I am not the one who stays mum or sits at home when something like this happens. There could always be a pressing reason why one couldn’t visit the tragedy site. I can`t stoop so low to do politics on such a matter. I have a responsibility and am aware of it," Nitish said.

Charging the BJP and RJD with being `impatient` to destabilise his government and capture power `anyhow`, Nitish said, "I will be in power and continue to work to fulfil the promise I had made to voters in the 2010 Assembly Elections ... Nobody can do any harm to me till I enjoy confidence of voters and blessings of the Almighty."

The Bihar Chief Minister also dismissed the opposition charge of loosing vital time in shifting critically ill students to PMCH by taking them first to Chhapra sadar hospital.

"The response time was quickest...Doctors at Chhapra did their best and when it was thought the children would get better treatment at PMCH, they were at once moved there," the Chief Minister said adding he himself monitored the situation and gave instructions.