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Families Of Poisoned Children Try To Cope In India


In India, police have widened their hunt for the principal of an elementary school. It's the place where 23 children died last week after eating a toxic school lunch. The principal has been missing, along with her husband, since the day the children fell sick. An arrest warrant has been issued for her. In the meantime, parents of the victims are trying to cope with the tragedy. NPR's Julie McCarthy visited some of the families who live in one of India's poorest states.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The state of Bihar ranks among the lowest in the country in per capita income. It has made great strides in the past half decade, but Bihar's persistent deprivation is apparent on the bad roads that delivered us to the infamous spot where one of India's most gruesome episodes of poisoning unfolded.

Here at the entrance of the village of Gandaman sits a one-room, pale green structure. It's a typical Indian village school: ill-equipped, run-down, bleak. Last week, it was the scene of the gruesome poisoning that left the village reeling. In front of the school, a dirt mound rises - the grave of eight year old Rahul Kumar Ram, grandson of Makeshwar Ram who says he buried Rahul with his bare hands to remind teachers, administrators, politicians of the wrong that was done here.

Inside his home, Makeshwar Ram reaches into his pocket and retrieves a treasured object, a photograph of his young grandson Rahul. Ram says the 8-year-old boy was especially precious because he came along after the family had lost three previous grandchildren who lived only a few days. The family reposed great hopes in Rahul who was, by his grandfather's account, a demanding child - asking for money to buy eggs and candy - but who was also an eager student.

MAKESHWAR RAM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: We dreamed he would be an engineer, Ram says, and we had high expectations that once he had a career, he would then look after the family and our lives would be smoother and more comfortable.

Deprived of an education, Ram is, by his own admission, illiterate. His father died when he was just 2, which meant he went to work, not school. Stroking the grey stubble on his chin, he says: I can only write my name. Makeshwar Ram is stung by his dire straits. He says his grandson died after eating the toxic school lunch because they are poor.

RAM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Being poor is a curse, he says. I didn't have enough means to save my grandson. Had I been rich, I would have flown him to Delhi to the best hospital, not a government hospital, and I could have saved that boy. But I could not afford to do it, the 56-year-old grandfather says in resignation.


MCCARTHY: Rural India is a world away from urban India with its ceaseless construction and corporate headquarters. Here, there's only rudimentary plumbing and often no power grid.

On a Sunday afternoon, the quiet of the village is rent by the sounds of a woman wailing. The grieving mother, Chandra Devi, lost her two youngest children - boys aged 10 and 7 in the tragedy. Earlier, she spoke about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

CHANDRA DEVI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: My son Rahul was 10. He used to say I'll be a teacher or a doctor, she says. He knew he was poor and wanted to change things by acquiring knowledge and something more for his family, says his mother, as she lies on a makeshift bed with an IV drip in her arm.

The parents of Gandaman village dream that their children will advance and transport them from their deprived and difficult circumstances to a new, happier life. Never mind that their meager elementary school, now a crime scene, has not a shred of infrastructure or a piece of equipment or even glass on the windows.

There's story making the rounds in Gandaman. On the day the children ate the toxic lunch, the headmistress, who police want on charges of murder, punished pupils who had come to school without covers on their books. They were sent out to stand in the scorching sun. A passing grandmother is said to have spotted them, swooped them home and spared them from eating the deadly midday meal.

It's how life goes for these villagers who must learn to navigate the cruelties of life that can be wantonly cruel if you are poor in rural India. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.