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

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers 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 Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More