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More than 20 children die in school meal tragedy

Death toll could rise in India

More than 20 children die in school meal tragedy

Parents of a child taken ill after eating the contaminated food en route to hospital in Bihar (STR / AFP)

Swati Deb, New Delhi

July 17, 2013

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Up to 22 children in the Indian state of Bihar have died and more are critically ill after eating contaminated food at a government school.

Preliminary reports suggested the deaths were the result of contaminated oil used to cook the free lunches, which were consumed at a government school in the Chhapra district. Bihar’s Education Minister, P K Shahi, said the deaths may have been caused by the presence of insecticides generally used on rice and wheat crops.

Medical sources suggested that the smell emanating from the bodies of the children was due to organo-phosphorous, a poisonous substance.

Investigators will seek to determine whether it entered the food deliberately or accidentally.

Twelve of the deceased have already been buried near the school. Angry protesters in Chhapra demanded action against those responsible, while violent protests broke out when locals took to the streets and torched buses. A hospital was also damaged.

K C Tyagi, a spokesman of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party, which rules Bihar, told that the women who cooked the meal had also died, along with her children.

With more children critically ill, the fear is that the death toll could rise.

"This is criminal negligence and the state government is responsible for this," said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, spokesperson of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A case has been registered against the school's headmistress, Meena Devi, and other teachers.

The Midday Meal Scheme is a popular program in India that started in 1923, and targets some 120 million children in government-run schools who come from poor families.

Lalu Prasad, president of the Bihar-based Rashtriya Janata Dal (National People’s Party), that the state government had not acted on prior warnings of corruption and mismanagement of the Midday Meal Scheme.

The federal Human Resource Development minister, Pallam Raju, told however that, “we should not try to politicize it. In fact, this is an example that we should exercise more caution when it comes to midday meals provided to children."

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