Angry protests as poisoned school meal kills 22 children in India

22 Indian children have died after eating free school meals, feared tainted with insecticide, while street protests erupt in wake of tragedy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 1:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 9:08am


Twenty-two children died after eating a free lunch feared to have contained poisonous chemicals at an Indian primary school, officials said yesterday, as the tragedy sparked street protests.

Another 30 children were still in hospital after consuming the meal of lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village school in the impoverished state of Bihar on Tuesday, amid fears the food may have been contaminated with insecticide.

Video: Riot in India as school meal kills dozens of children

Twenty of the children, aged between four and 10, were buried near the school in the village of Masrakh yesterday morning.

There were emotional scenes as children, their limbs dangling and heads lolling, were admitted to a hospital in Chhapra, the main town of Saran district where the school is located. Other pupils, lying listless on stretchers, were placed on intravenous drips amid chaotic scenes at the hospital. Outside, 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."

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".

Savita, an 11-year-old student who uses only one name, said she had a stomach ache after eating soybeans and potatoes and started vomiting. "I don't know what happened after that," Savita said in an interview at Patna Medical College Hospital.

Bihar state education minister P.K. Shahi said the midday meal "appears to be poisonous".

The cook also died after eating the food, local government official Amarjeet Sinha said. Her two children, who studied at the same school, were receiving treatment in hospital.

As the death toll continued to rise, angry residents armed with poles and sticks took to the streets of Chhapra. The crowd smashed the windows of police buses and other vehicles and overturned a police booth.

"Hundreds of angry people staged a protest in Saran … demanding stern action against government officials responsible for this shocking incident," said district government official S.K. Mall. A preliminary investigation had shown the meal may have contained traces of phosphate from insecticide in the vegetables, Sinha said.

He said doctors were treating victims with atropine, which was effective against organophosphate poisoning.

Media reports quoted villagers as saying the use of contaminated, foul-smelling mustard oil for cooking at the school could also have caused the deaths.

"Investigators are examining midday meal samples and samples of victims' vomit. Only the final report of inquiry will reveal the real cause," Sinha said.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar announced a compensation payment of 200,000 rupees (HK$26,000) for each of the bereaved families.

India runs the world's largest free school meal scheme, covering 120 million children. The Supreme Court ordered state governments in 2001 to provide free lunches to students in all state-run primary schools.

Educators see the midday meal scheme 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 sub-standard food.

More than 130 students were taken to hospital in the western city of Pune last year after eating lunch at school, the Times of India reported.

An investigation 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 be living below the poverty line.

Additional reporting by Associated Press