By Sumnima Udas and Tim Hume, CNN
July 19, 2013 — Updated 0940 GMT (1740 HKT)
(CNN) — In Masrakh, an impoverished village in India’s northeastern Bihar state — scenes of trauma, confusion, intense grief.
Here, at the site of the school meal poisoning incident that has claimed 23 young lives and imperiled 25 others, thousands of people mill around, stunned, hungry for information. They listen to the procession of politicians that streams into the village to pay respects and make promises. But they cannot offer what these people want most: answers as to how the government-mandated free meals, meant to nourish the community’s children, could instead have cost them their lives.
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Four burnt out police vehicles fringe the side of the road, a sign of the simmering anger felt towards authorities over the tragedy. Investigators had previously flagged issues with food safety at schools in the state, with one report in April from India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development noting that school food “was kept in open and dirty ground.”
A fresh grave has been dug in front of the ramshackle, solitary classroom where 120 of the village’s children were enrolled — an unambiguous sign of protest over the incident. There are many others buried nearby. Above all this, the wails of grieving families pierce the air.
Sarita Devi is inconsolable as she mourns the loss of her five-year-old daughter, Dipu. The wife of a migrant worker, Devi says her daughter had not wanted to go to school that day, and laments the fact she had even given her a paisa — a sub-unit of India’s rupee — to attend. “Why isn’t anyone bringing Dipu back?” she cries.
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Like many here, she has words of anger for the school’s principal, who authorities say has absconded together with her husband, and whom they are seeking to interview. Devi’s grief eventually overpowers her, and her body goes limp.
This is a poor village, in one of India’s poorest states. Locals live in simple dwellings made of clay. The school is the heart of the community, meaning that scarcely a family here has not been affected. Even the school’s cook, Manju Devi, lost children to the tragedy; her husband, Lal Babu Rai, told a reporter from CNN-IBN, CNN’s sister network, that two had died after eating the tainted food, while another remains in hospital.
The settlement’s solitary water pump is where locals say they were first alerted to the commotion following Tuesday’s regular midday school meal. School children had congregated there to wash their plates after the regular daily meal of rice and potatoes. On this occasion, however, they began vomiting and collapsing.
The children were rushed to the local medical facility, but they could do nothing for them. They were transferred on to a larger hospital at Patna, Bihar’s capital, some four hours’ drive away.
In Patna, despite the distance, the incident is being keenly felt. The city has been rocked by violent protests over the deaths, and at Patna state government school on Friday, many children said they had been instructed by their parents not to eat any school meals, due to fears of further contamination.
They need not worry. Many NGOs who deliver the meals to the schools have stopped providing them to some schools, out of fears of a backlash. While answers on the tragedy remain scant, one thing remains clear: it will be some time before any sense of normalcy returns to Bihar.