The 23 Indian schoolchildren died after consuming insecticide-tainted food in one of the deadliest outbreaks of mass poisoning in years. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports
Indian children 'could have been poisoned intentionally', official says
NEW DELHI // The 23 Indian schoolchildren who died after consuming insecticide-tainted food in the eastern state of Bihar may have been poisoned intentionally, a senior state official said yesterday.
The children, aged between 4 and 12, became ill immediately after eating a state-subsidised midday meal of rice, soybeans and lentils at a school on Tuesday in the village of Dharmasati Gandawa, 80 kilometres north of Patna, the Bihar state capital. It was one of the deadliest outbreaks of mass poisoning in years.
Amarjeet Sinha, Bihar's education secretary, said a container of insecticide had been found in the school's cooking area, next to vessels containing vegetable and mustard oil. He told reporters in Patna yesterday that the food consumed by the children may not have been contaminated by accident.
"We are investigating how the cooking oil came in contact with the insecticide," Mr Sinha said. "It seems that insecticide was intentionally mixed with the food. It is being probed."
PK Shahi, the state's education minister, said the store where the food for the midday meal was purchased belonged to the husband of the school's headmistress, Meena Kumari.
Mr Shahi suggested that the poisoning may have been a political vendetta against the man, a member of the local opposition party, or an attempt by him to embarrass the country's ruling Congress party. The Congress party was set to expand current food-subsidy programmes as part of an ambitious plan to feed 800 million undernourished Indians in the run-up to national elections due within a year.
"I believe the children were poisoned," Mr Shahi said, adding that he based that judgement on "initial reports". Authorities were expected to release a full forensics report today.
Both Meena Kumari and her husband fled as the children became sick and died. Their whereabouts were still unknown last night.
The child victims of the tainted food were buried yesterday in plots next to their school, as the Indian government announced it would set up an inquiry into the quality of food given to school pupils in the free-lunch programme.
That did not allay the worries of thousands of Indian schoolchildren in Bihar, who refused yesterday to eat their state-supplied noon meals. Nor did it assuage the anger of protesters, who burned effigies of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Beyond the possibility of political skullduggery, the deaths of the schoolchildren renewed public attention on the corruption, mismanagement and other abuses that have plagued India's school feeding programme, the world's largest.
Educators see the scheme as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished. But children often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and occasionally sub-standard food.
According to a 2009 federal government audit, Bihar officials repeatedly failed to carry out mandatory quality checks of meal programmes. They also ignored regulations stipulating that only non-profit groups or women's self-help groups could be employed to obtain the food and cook it. Instead, they employed teachers to carry out the tasks, the report said.
According to the audit, 186 out of 200 schools where inspections were carried out did did not have adequate cooking, serving or storage utensils.
Initial reports from Dharmasati Gandawa indicated that food-preparation procedures requiring that midday meals be prepared at a centralised location, not on school grounds, were ignored.
Yesterday, Mr Sinha, the education secretary, admitted that the meal programme had struggled to provide food to the 10 million children of Bihar, one of India's poorest and most populous states. He asked the central government to provide more funds so the state could hire 68,000 additional cooks, as well as train teachers in first-aid.
The central government provides rice to state governments and gives them an additional 3.02 rupees (Dh0.19) per child, per meal for cooking expenses, which include buying spices, lentils and vegetables. It is up to the state governments to add to the kitty and hand out licences to self-help groups or contractors to supply the meals.
Under the National Food Security Ordinance proposed Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, five kg (11 lb) of cheap grain would be distributed every month to 800 million people. The scheme would more than double the reach of the existing subsidised food system and make it probably the largest welfare initiative since India gained independence in 1947.
Despite abuses, the current food subsidy scheme has been widely praised.
In Mumbai, 60,000 children are fed every day from Gorakshanath Gambhire's kitchen, which is run by the ISKON Food Relief Foundation, a non-profit group. The food is sent from a centralised kitchen in sealed steel containers to avoid tampering. To supplement the additional cost of providing nutritious food, the organisation asks for donations.
"The cost is not sufficient, what the government gives so we have to ask for handouts," Mr Gambhire said. "In rural areas, it costs 50 per cent more to supply food. If the government increased the amount of funding it would go a long way."
For the past two years, he has watched as children who come into the programme have shown an average body weight increase of 1 to 1.5 kilos.
"If implemented properly, this will be the biggest, most successful scheme in the world," he said. "It will be a long-term investment in the literacy and health rates of the country."
Additional reporting by AFP and Reuters