22 Children Dead in India from Contaminated School Lunches

Indian officials admitted earlier this week that free lunch tainted with insecticide was the cause of 22 student deaths, Indrajit Singh for the Associated Press reports. The food also sickened more than two dozen students.

Although officials confirmed the cause, there is yet no word on how the food came to be contaminated. Those in charge of the investigation say that it’s possible that the food was not sufficiently cleaned before it was prepared and served in the school located in Bihar in the eastern part of India.

Children, all between the age of 5 and 12, started displaying symptoms shortly after being served the meal of rice, lentils, soybeans and potatoes. The Gandamal village school employees stopped serving the food after students begun vomiting.

Savita, a 12-year-old student who uses only one name, said she had a stomach ache after eating soybeans and potatoes and started vomiting.

“I don’t know what happened after that,” Savita said in an interview at Patna Medical College Hospital, where she and many other children were recovering.

The lunch, part of a popular national campaign to give at least one daily hot meal to children from poor families, was cooked in the school kitchen.

The children were rushed to a local hospital and later to Patna for treatment, said state official Abhijit Sinha.

In addition to the 22 children who died, another 25 children and the school cook were in hospital undergoing treatment, P.K. Sahi, the state education minister. Three children were in serious condition.

A school official who directs the free meal program has been suspended by government authorities and criminal negligence charges are being filed against the school principal. According to Singh, the principal fled the scene after students started becoming ill.

After the news spread, local villages rioted, closing down shops and overturning police cars.

State education minister P.K. Sahi said that insecticide was identified as an organophosphate, which is used to spray wheat and rice crops. Sahi likewise said that those who cooked it didn’t follow safety protocols by failing to wash the grain before using it.

However, local villagers said the problem appeared to be with a side dish of soybeans and potatoes, not grain. Children who had not eaten that dish were fine, although they had eaten the rice and lentils, several villagers told the AP.

Sinha said the cooked food and kitchen utensils have been seized by investigators. “Whether it was a case of negligence or was intentional, we will only know once the inquiry has been conducted,” he said.

India’s midday meal scheme is one of the world’s biggest school nutrition programs. State governments have the freedom to decide on menus and timings of the meals, depending on local conditions and availability of food rations. It was first introduced in southern India, where it was seen as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school.