Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
Yesterday evening, two news programmes jostled for the viewer's attention on television. One was about the ex-railway minister, Pawan Bansal, and how the CBI was wrong to let him off scot free in the Railgate scandal where hefty bribes were paid for posts and deals were made by Bansal's nephew in Bansal's residence. Bansal had lost his job as railway minister soon after the news of the scandal broke in May, but the CBI had not charged him of wrongdoing. The judge, Swarna Kanta Sharma, reviewing the case recently, succinctly said that "the high and mighty should not escape the law." The other news item was the heartrending story of children's deaths in Bihar from eating midday meals. Was it the contaminated grain, the rancid oil, the utter apathy of the authorities, the low salaries of the cooks that led to the untimely snuffing out of so many innocent lives? Or was it sabotage, oil laced with insecticide, hinting at a covert political vendetta?
Bansal was adamant about protesting his innocence. "I am not bothered by what people say about me behind my back," he said airily, dismissing any possibility that he may be involved in money exchanging hands for plum postings on the Railway Board, deals struck by his very nephew, Vijay Singla with a senior railway official, Mahesh Kumar, in Bansal's official residence. The amount paid, only the first installment, was Rs 90 lakh. The fact that the CBI had summoned him as a witness for the prosecution obviously validated Pawan Bansal's claim to complete ignorance about nefarious doings happening under his very nose. I was away that weekend, (the weekend of the deal) he had claimed earlier. The CBI interrogated me for seven hours "rigorously" and gave me a clean chit. In fact, they have called me as a witness for the prosecution. Does that mean nothing? Greed? Avarice? What did those words even mean, his smiling demeanour seemed to say to the TV reporters who surrounded him.
And the other lead story was about the tragedy at Chhapra, Bihar on Tuesday last that left twenty-three schoolchildren, mostly under ten years of age, dead, after consuming the school's midday meal. Many other children were hospitalised. The principal of the school, Meena Devi, had ordered the cooks to use the contaminated oil even after they had said that it was not all right. When the children complained about the meal, Meena Devi had ordered the cooks to taste the meal. They fainted after tasting it. The children paid a steeper price. Meena Devi and her grocer husband were absconding.
I was struck by the comment made by one of the bereaved mothers in Chhapra to the TV reporter. "It was my greed," she wept, "my greed that led to my child's death. You see, they were going to give out free textbooks in school that day so I forced her to go to school...."
At one end of the spectrum in this wonderful, vibrant democracy of ours a man who held one of the top positions in the Cabinet, well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed, smilingly proclaiming his innocence and dismissing all claims of wrongdoing. At the other end, a bereaved mother who unknowingly risked her child's life every day because the school offered what she could not, a midday meal and school textbooks, berating herself for her greed.