India has witnessed yet another tragedy whilst the wounds of the havoc monsoon flooding wrecked on the country remain fresh, as no fewer than 21 children died and more than two dozen others fell sick after eating a free school lunch that was tainted with insecticide, according to Indian officials.
It was not immediately clear how chemicals ended up in the food in a school in the eastern state of Bihar on Wednesday. One official said the food may not have been properly washed before it was cooked.
The children, between the ages of 8 and 11, fell ill Tuesday soon after eating lunch in Gandamal village in Masrakh block, 80 kilometers north of the state capital of Patna. School authorities immediately stopped serving the meal of rice, lentils, soybeans and potatoes as the children started vomiting. It was however too late as 21 children died anyway.
Savita, an 11-year-old student said she had a stomach ache after eating soya and potatoes and started vomiting.
“I don’t know what happened after that,” Savita told AP at Patna Medical College Hospital, where she and many other children were recovering.
The lunch, part of a popular national campaign to give at least one daily hot meal to children from poor families, was cooked in the school kitchen.
The children were rushed to a local hospital and later to Patna for treatment, said state official Abhijit Sinha.
In addition to the 21 children who died, another 26 children and the school cook were hospitalized, he said. Ten of them were in serious condition.
Authorities suspended an official in charge of the free meal scheme in the school and registered a case of criminal negligence against the school headmaster, who fled as soon as the children fell ill.
The state education minister, P.K. Sahi, said a preliminary investigation suggested the food contained an organophosphate used as an insecticide on rice and wheat crops.
It’s believed the grain was not washed before it was cooked at the school, he said.
However, local villagers believe the problem was with a side dish of soybeans and potatoes, not grain, as children who had not eaten that dish were fine, although they had eaten the rice and lentils.
Sinha said the cooked food and kitchen utensils have been seized by investigators.
“Whether it was a case of negligence or was intentional, we will only know once the inquiry has been conducted,” he said.
India’s midday meal scheme is one of the world’s biggest school nutrition programs. State governments have the freedom to decide on menus and timings of the meals, depending on local conditions and availability of food rations. It was first introduced in southern India, where it was seen as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school.