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

Obama: I Will Do 'Everything I Can' to Close Guantanamo

US president says prison continues 'to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world' More

Sierra Leone Educates on Safe Ebola Burials

Also, country is improving at rapid response to isolated outbreaks, but health workers need to be even faster, officials say More

Christmas Gains Popularity in Vietnam

Increasingly wealthy Vietnamese embrace holiday due to its non-religious glamor, commercial appeal More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubansi
X
Sharon Behn
December 19, 2014 9:34 PM
For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.

All About America

AppleAndroid