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.
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 Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs