News / Asia

India to Probe Meal Scheme After Schoolchildren Deaths

Villagers stand next to mass graves of the school children who died after consuming contaminated meals given to them at a school of the Chapra district, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, July 18, 2013.
Villagers stand next to mass graves of the school children who died after consuming contaminated meals given to them at a school of the Chapra district, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, July 18, 2013.
Reuters
The Indian government announced on Thursday it would set up an inquiry into the quality of food given to school pupils in a nationwide free meal scheme after at least 23 children died in one of the deadliest outbreaks of mass poisoning in years.

Within minutes of eating a meal of rice and potato curry in the eastern state of Bihar on Tuesday, the children began to fall ill, a cook at the school at the center of the outbreak told Reuters from her hospital bed.

The children, aged four to 12, died after vomiting and convulsing from agonizing stomach cramps, officials and relatives said. Death came so quickly for some that they died in their parents' arms while being taken to hospital.

Dozens of other children are being treated for food poisoning in hospital.

Police said they were searching for the headmistress of the school in Gandaman village in Bihar, one of India's most impoverished states, who has disappeared, along with her family. The school provided free meals under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the world's largest school feeding program involving 120 million children.

Police said it was not possible to conclusively say what caused the poisoning, but the focus of the investigation was on the oil used in the preparation of the meal.

Doctors treating the children said they suspected the food had been contaminated with insecticide. Media reports said the cooking oil may have been stored in an old pesticide container, but there was no independent confirmation of this.

"The minute the children were brought in, we smelled this foul odor of organophosphorus,'' said Dr. Vinod Mishra, a doctor in the medical team treating many of the children at Patna Medical College Hospital in Bihar's capital, Patna.
    
Organophosphorus compounds are used as pesticides, which are widely available and are sold under a variety of different brands.

The medical superintendent of the hospital, Dr. Amarkant Jha, said 23 of the 24 children at the hospital were recovering well and out of danger. One was still in a critical condition.

Police said witnesses had given different versions of how the children fell ill. Central to solving the mystery was finding the headmistress, who fled the village with her family soon after the mass food poisoning, they said.

"The search is on to nab her. She will be the key to the investigation because she will be the one who can share details about the quality of food and the supplier,'' said Sujit Kumar, superintendent of police in Saran district, where Gandaman village is located.
 
When Reuters visited the school, a tiny ramshackle turquoise building in the middle of the village, it still bore signs of the chaos that erupted on Tuesday.

Books were strewn over the floor of the only classroom, along with scattered metal plates and schoolbags. The room had no fans, lights, chairs or desks.

Parents said ingredients for the lunches like rice, lentils, salt and oil, were stored at the headmistress's house and brought to the school each day because there was no storage space at the school. The "kitchen'' is a pile of bricks and charcoal outside the classroom.

Local farmer Ajay Kumar's 5-year-old daughter was among the victims. He was in his house, which is about 100 meters from the school, when he heard screams from neighbors saying the children had fallen ill.

"I rushed there and all the kids were on their backs or clutching their stomachs or vomiting. I picked up my girl and took her to the local hospital right away,'' Ajay said.

Parents hitched rides or took public transport to get to the hospital, which is about 15 km (nine miles) from the village, he said. Medical staff told them they had no medicines to give them. His daughter died shortly afterwards, writhing in pain on the floor.

When Reuters visited the village, there were at least 18 burial mounds, many in a large field opposite the school. Some contained multiple bodies and villagers could not agree on how many children were buried in them. Many parents said they buried their children's toys and clothes in the graves.

 Action will be taken

Federal Education Minister M.M. Pallam Raju vowed that "action will be taken'' against those responsible for the 23 deaths but did not single out anyone by name. He gave no details of the committee he was setting up to investigate food quality in the mid-day meal scheme.

The announcement may be met with some skepticism as the government often sets up committees to investigate issues. These often take years to produce reports, which rarely lead to any changes in policy.

With her mother sitting beside her, one of the school's cooks, Manju Devi, lay in bed in a dimly lit ward of the Patna hospital, almost too weak to talk.

Speaking in a local Bihari dialect, she told Reuters that she had almost immediately fallen ill, along with the children, after eating the lunch of rice and potatoes.

When asked if she had prepared it, her mother quickly intervened, saying, ``No! She had nothing to do with the meal that day, another cook had made the deal that day.''

Although there have been widespread complaints of food quality in the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in India, cases of mass food poisoning are rare.

In 1998, adulterated rapeseed oil killed as many as 60 people in the capital New Delhi. Investigations later revealed that the oil had been mixed with white oil, a petroleum product.

You May Like

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said To Be Improving

Experimental drugs have been tried on six people: three Westerners and now, three African pyhysicians More

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities residents rebuild their lives, but many say everyone is being treated with suspicion More

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

Girls learn to object; FGM practitioners face penalties from jail sentences to stiff fines More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid