It would be a gross understatement to call it a scandal, though such incidents are almost endemic in the impoverished tribal belt of Odisha. The latest aberration reaffirms a bizarre cocktail of the search of learning and crimes against women, the second almost tacitly condoned by the district administrations. The fact that a 14-year-old girl of Class 8 gave birth inside a state-run tribal residential school in Kandhamal district on 12 January was a horrendous travesty of the right to education, now a fundamental entitlement. The tragedy assumed a heart-rending dimension on Monday with the death of the baby girl; whether it was yet another instance of female infanticide can only be speculated upon and we must await the findings of a thorough medical examination. The student is battling for life in a hospital in Berhampur, the headquarters of Ganjam district. Fairly confirmed is the case of rape inside the hostel, if the arrest of a college student on the charge of having impregnated the girl is any indication. How did the man enter the school girls’ hostel? This is the fundamental question that needs to be asked and answered. Swiftly has the National Human Rights Commission taken suo motu cognisance of the incident, seeking a report from Odisha’s Chief Secretary within four weeks. It is fervently to be hoped that the matter will not be swept under the carpet. Prima facie, the crime points to a huge lapse on the part of the school authorities and the administration in Bhubaneswar. Not the least because the state’s tribal welfare department has set up a network of residential schools in the remote tribal-dominated areas with the express objective of promoting education in the subaltern belt. The Kandhhamal outrage has underlined the imperative for a drastic tightening up of the hostel administrations. There are regulations in place to monitor the functioning of school girls’ hostels, with the focus on health and diet. As it turns out, the tribal welfare department has failed on both counts. The student, who had to bear the sexual assault by an outsider, was never examined. Scant regard for rules alone explains why doctors never visit these hostels.

Far from a concerted essay towards investigation, the Opposition has found a convenient stick to beat the government with. This isn’t the moment for the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party to ratchet up the political pressure on Naveen Patnaik’s BJD government. Admittedly, an important department in a predominantly rural state has been found wanting. Yet it lends no scope for a political offensive in an election year or even a sniper attack on the Chief Minister. A holistic investigation must cover the lapse of the tribal welfare department, the school-cum-hostel authorities, and the alleged involvement of criminals.