NEW DELHI // A parent of one of the 23 children who died from eating pesticide-tainted food at school in the eastern Indian state of Bihar has formally accused the school's headmistress of murder, police said yesterday.
Akhilanand Mishra filed a complaint at the Mashrak police station yesterday against Meena Kumari, the headmistress of the school in the village of Dharmasati Gandawa where his son consumed a poisoned lunch of rice, lentils, potatoes and soybeans on July 16 and later died.
Sujeet Kumar, the superintendent of police for the nearby city of Chappra, said additional names could be added to the complaint, which could become the basis for criminal charges pending the outcome of a police forensics examination, now expected to be released on Tuesday.
In the complaint, Mr Mishra, a farmer, said that his child fell ill after eating the state-subsidised meal provided by his school and died en route to the hospital.
"He stated this is because of negligence on part of the principal and others," Mr Kumar said.
Police were still pursuing Mrs Kumari and her husband, whose whereabouts late last night were still unknown.
PK Shahi, Bihar's education minister, said on Wednesday that the poisoning may have been intentional. Mrs Kumari's husband, a member of an opposition political party and the owner of the shopping complex where the food was obtained, may have been seeking to embarrass the state's ruling authorities, he said.
One of the deadliest mass poisonings in years in India has cast a shadow on India's most ambitious food programme, which was introduced in 2001 to combat malnutrition and encourage literacy among poor children. The programme feeds 120 million children in 1.2 million schools across India.
R Lakshmanan, who oversees the midday meals programme in Bihar state, accused Mrs Kumari yesterday of "gross negligence", rejecting charges that the deaths represented a wider government failure. Mr Lakshmanan said the tragedy would not have occurred if rules had been followed. "There has been a very callous attitude and gross negligence on the part of the headmistress," he said in the provincial capital of Patna. "Our principals have been given detailed training as recently as April, including instructions to taste the food before feeding the students."
Police yesterday disclosed further details about the deadly meal.
Panno Devi, a cook at the school in Dharmasati Gandawa, has told investigators that she cooked the lentils and rice, while another cook prepared the curry that contained potatoes and soybean and cooking oil supplied by the headmistress.
The meal had been prepared on a makeshift stove made of bricks, and most of the students ate off metal plates sitting on the building's concrete floor. Within minutes of finishing lunch, some of the children fainted and others started vomiting.
Among the dead were Ms Panno's two children, aged 4 and 11. She was in critical condition last evening in Chappra hospital, suffering from food poisoning.
At least 24 other children who consumed the tainted food were still hospitalised in Patna yesterday, three of whom were in critical condition.
Protests in Bihar against the allegedly poor quality of the food served under the government's midday meals programme continued yesterday, with teachers and students clashing in the district of Nawada.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
email@example.com with additional reporting from Bloomberg News