PATNA, India – Twenty-two children have died after eating a free lunch feared to contain poisonous chemicals at an Indian primary school, officials said Wednesday, as the tragedy sparked angry street protests.
Another 30 children are still in hospital after consuming the meal of lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village school in the dirt-poor state of Bihar on Tuesday.
“Three children are fighting for their lives but doctors say they might save them,” state education minister P.K. Shahi told reporters, as initial investigations showed the food may have contained traces of insecticide.
The minister said police were probing whether the food was accidentally or possibly deliberately poisoned, adding that “the facts of the case will be established in the investigation”.
“The deaths were not due to food poisoning. It is a clear-cut case of mixing poison in the food,” Shahi said.
Twenty of the children, aged between four and 10, were buried near the school in the village of Masrakh on Wednesday morning.
At a hospital in Chhapra, the main town of Saran district where the school is located, there were emotional scenes as children, their limbs dangling and heads lolling, were admitted.
Other children, lying listless on stretchers, were placed on intravenous drips amid chaotic scenes at the hospital. Outside, inconsolable relatives wept.
“My children had gone to school to study. They came back home crying, and said it hurts,” one distraught father told the NDTV network.
“I took them into my arms, but they kept crying, saying their stomach hurt very badly.”
Running to the school to find out what had happened, the father said he saw “many bodies of children lying on the ground”.
As the death toll continued to rise, angry residents armed with poles and sticks took to the streets of Chhapra.
The mob smashed windows of police buses and other vehicles and overturned a police booth.
“Hundreds of angry people staged a protest in Saran since late Tuesday night, demanding stern action against government officials responsible for this shocking incident,” said district government official S.K. Mall.
India runs the world’s largest free school meal scheme, covering 120 million children. Educators see it as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished.
But children often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and occasionally sub-standard food.
A preliminary investigation showed the meal may have contained traces of phosphate from insecticide in the vegetables, education minister Shahi said.
“It seems poison has been used, (I) repeat used, in the food but we are yet to find out the type of poison that has been used. Preliminary reports say it is organic phosphorous, which if consumed in excess can prove fatal,” he said.
Doctors were treating victims with atropine, which is effective against organophosphate poisoning, local government official Amarjeet Sinha said.
“Investigators are examining midday meal samples and samples of victims’ vomit. Only the final report of enquiry will reveal the real cause,” Sinha said.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar announced compensation of 200,000 rupees ($3,373) for each of the bereaved families.
Meanwhile, some 50 children fell ill in a neighboring district in Bihar on Wednesday after eating lunch at their school. They were given first aid but none needed to be admitted to hospital, an official said.
“On enquiry we found a lizard in the food that was cooked in the school premises and we have already ordered an investigation,” district administrator Lokesh Kumar Singh said by phone.
Last year more than 130 students were taken to hospital in the western city of Pune after eating lunch at school, the Times of India reported. A probe revealed that the food was contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Food prices have soared in India over the past six years, causing increased hardship for the 455 million people estimated by the World Bank to live below the poverty line.
Ahead of elections next year, the government this month announced a subsidized food program to offer grains to nearly 70 percent of the population, or 820 million people, at a small fraction of market prices.