Scared schoolchildren shun free school meals

Updated: 2013-07-19 07:09

By Agencies in Patna, India (China Daily)

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 Scared schoolchildren shun free school meals

Women mourn the children who died after eating contaminated meals at a school at Chapra in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Provided by Reuters

Thousands of schoolchildren were refusing free meals in poverty-stricken eastern India after 22 children died from eating lunch apparently contaminated with insecticide, officials said on Thursday.

Authorities were trying to reassure frightened students and parents in the state of Bihar as police stepped up their investigation into the tragedy, focusing on the school headmistress who has fled.

The 22 children, aged four to 12, died after eating lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village school on Tuesday, sparking violent protests from angry residents.

Some 30 children remain ill in hospitals after eating the food.

Autopsy reports on the dead children confirmed that they were poisoned by insecticide, which was either in the food or cooking oil, a doctor said on Thursday.

Children elsewhere in the state were dumping their meals in bins or refusing even to touch them, despite pleas from school officials that the tragedy would not recur, a senior state government official said.

"Parents have warned their children to not even touch the meal served in the school," said Lakshmanan, director of the midday meal scheme in Bihar, who uses only one name.

"Some of the students dumped the lunch in school dustbins and we are trying to convince everyone that the tragedy will not be repeated," said Lakshmanan.

India's governments run the world's largest school meals program involving 120 million children. Bihar is one of India's most populated and poorest states.

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 substandard food.

Authorities have instructed all teachers and cooks in the state to first taste the free lunch before serving it to the children.

"We will have to make parents believe that midday meals provide nutrition and are not meant to kill students," said Lakshmanan.

Police conducted raids on Wednesday night across the district of Saran, where the village school is located.

They raided the home of the headmistress Meena Kumari, who fled after the children started dying on Tuesday, a senior officer said on condition of anonymity.

"We found two containers filled with insecticide in the headmistress's house, along with pulses, vegetables and rice allotted for the midday meals," said the officer, who is investigating the deaths.


(China Daily USA 07/19/2013 page6)