At least 22 school children are killed and dozens sickened from food poisoning caused by eating contaminated school lunches in India’s eastern state of Bihar. All affected children ranged in age between three and 12. There are fears that the death toll could rise as some of the children remain critically ill.
Reports say 47 students of a government primary school in Dharmasati Gandaman village became ill on Tuesday after eating the free school lunch provided under the India’s Mid-Day Meal program. According to reports, the food poisoning incident happened at the Gandaman primary school in Saran district.
Twenty-eight sick children were admitted into nearby hospitals in the towns of Chhapra and Patna, after the incident. Reports say angry and grieving parents set police vehicles on fire.
Raja Yadav, a father of one ill child, said his son had been vomiting after returning from school and had to be rushed to hospital.
There were conflicting reports about the cause of the food contamination.
PK Shahi, India’s state education minister, told reporters that a preliminary investigation showed 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.”
A doctor treating the children at a hospital in Patna said contaminated vegetable oil could have caused the food poisoning.
However, a senior education official told reporters that poisoning could have come from insecticides in the food.
“We suspect it to be poisoning caused by insecticides in vegetable or rice,” Amarjeet Sinha told reporters.
According to him, the school was operating from a local government house and did not have a kitchen. The food was kept in the house of a head teacher.
“Since this is a newly-established school, it did not have a building and was operating from the panchayat bhavan. The food was stored in the house of the headmistress, whose two children are all ill. The two cooks are also unwell,” he told reporters.
Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s Chief Minister ordered a team of forensic experts to investigate the cause of the food poisoning that killed 22 school children in Bihar.
He promised swift action against those responsible for the incident.
In the meantime, the families of the dead were offered $3,370 each in compensation.
India’s Mid-Day Meal was first started for poor and disadvantaged children in the southern city of Chennai (Madras) in 1925 according to reports. Currently, the program provides free food to school children in order to try and boost attendance. According to the Indian Government, India’s Mid-Day Meal is the world’s largest school feeding program. It reaches 120 million children in 1.2 million schools across the country.
Officials say that the program encourages primary school enrollment and eliminates hunger. The program also brings children from different castes together to share a meal and overcome social prejudices.
However, according to reports the school program suffers from poor hygiene. Shahi acknowledged “that food is not being checked before it is being served.” He said that because of its large operation, testing food before it is served is a difficult task.
“The scale at which the operation is being carried out, serving food to 20 million children every day and that too in remotest village schools, checking food before it is served – that itself is a challenge.”
Local reporters say that this food poisoning incident that killed 22 school children in India’s Bihar State is not the first of its kind. Other similar incidents have occurred in schools across the country.
By Perviz Walji