Parents riot after burial of 23 Indian pupils poisoned by school lunch

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 1:33am

Parents rampaged through a village in eastern India in protest against the deaths of 23 pupils who ate a poisoned school lunch and the perceived slow police response, officials said on Friday.

They ransacked the home of the headmistress and government offices in the village in impoverished Bihar state, where the children died after being served a meal, apparently laced with insecticide, on Tuesday.

"Why have the police not been able to arrest the headmistress who forced our children to eat poisonous food? She should be killed," said bereaved father Surendra Rai, who took part in the raid late on Thursday after most of the children were buried.

Many of the victims, aged four to 12, from Gandaman village, were buried on a playing field adjacent to the primary school that served the free meal of rice, lentils and potatoes - the only meal of the day for many.

Some 30 children remained sick in hospitals, mainly in the state capital, Patna, officials said.

Police said they were investigating whether the food or the cooking oil was accidentally or deliberately poisoned, after initial tests detected insecticide.

The parents of the dead children ransacked the home of headmistress Meena Kumari, who fled the village as pupils started to fall ill, smashing windows and attempting to set the property on fire.

They also tried overnight to break into two small government offices where food supplies, which are rationed for residents, were thought to be stored.

Rai said his eight-year-old daughter had died within minutes of eating the lunch, echoing stories from other parents who said their children perished in their arms before they could get them to hospital.

India runs the world's largest school feeding programme, involving 120 million children, and Bihar is one of India's most populated and poorest states.

Educators see the scheme as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished. But children throughout the country often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and occasionally substandard food.

Police officer Sujit Kumar said police raided the home of Kumari, who fled with her husband and brother-in-law when they saw children fainting. "We found bags of fertilisers and pesticides kept next to bags of potato and rice in the headmistress' house," he said. "She was an educated woman, so why was she storing poison and food together?"