The Mid-Day Meal Scheme in Eastern India, something that is supposed to be good, turned bad after at least 22 children died and more than two dozen fell seriously ill. It’s being reported that the food was possibly contaminated with insecticide.
The children, aged between 8 and 12, fell sick Tuesday after eating lunch at the elementary school in Gandaman, a village about 65 miles from Patna, the capital of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states.
The children complained that the food which consisted of rice, beans and potato curry, tasted odd and soon after suffered severe vomiting and diarrhea, officials said. After the children’s complaints, the school’s cook tasted the meal and also fell ill, according to P. K. Shahi, minister of human resource development in Bihar.
“The oil used to cook the vegetables was foul-smelling. We suspect the poisoning was caused by insecticides such as organic phosphorous,” Amarjeet Sinha, Bihar’s education secretary, said Wednesday.
An organophosphate was found in the children’s bodies during post-mortem investigations, Dr. Shambhu Nath Singh, the deputy superintendent of the government hospital in Bihar’s Saran District said. Organophosphates are commonly used in insecticides and solvents and can be very toxic. Insecticides are used with abandon in some parts of rural India, and poisonings and suicides from their ingestion are routine.
The state education minister, PK Shahi, told the BBC a preliminary investigation indicated that the food was contaminated with traces of phosphorous. “The doctors who have attended are of the tentative opinion that the smell coming out of the bodies of the children suggests that the food contained organo-phosphorus, which is a poisonous substance,” he said. “Now the investigators have to find out whether organo-phosphorus was accidental or there was some deliberate mischief.”
“Either the food was contaminated already or it got contaminated during the cooking,” Dr. Singh 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.
The children were initially taken to Sadar hospital in the nearby town of Chapra and later transferred to Patna Medical College and Hospital, added Chapra District Magistrate Abhijeet Sinha.
“Their condition was quite serious, and we sent them to the state capital of Patna for treatment,” said Dr. Shambhu Nath Singh, the deputy superintendent of the government hospital in Bihar’s Saran District. But seven more children died later in the day.
Dozens of residents took to the streets in Chapra. Angry villagers, joined by members of local opposition parties, closed shops and businesses near the school and overturned and burned four police vehicles, pelting a police station with stones and setting ablaze buses and other vehicles, television channels showed.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has ordered an inquiry into the incident and has offered 200,000 rupees ($3,400) to the families of those who have died, the state’s food minister said.
Bihar is one of India’s poorest and most populous states. The Mid-Day Meal was first introduced for poor and disadvantaged children in the southern city of Chennai in 1925.
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