PATNA, India (AFP) – Twenty-two children died after eating a free lunch feared to contain poisonous chemicals at an Indian primary school, officials said Wednesday, as the tragedy sparked angry street protests.
Another 30 children are still in the hospital after consuming the meal of lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village school in the poverty-stricken state of Bihar on Tuesday.
“Three children are fighting for their lives but doctors say they might save them,” state education minister P.K. Shahi told reporters, as initial investigations showed the food may have contained traces of insecticide.
The minister said police were probing whether the food was accidentally or possibly deliberately poisoned, adding that “the facts of the case will be established in the investigation”.
“The deaths were not due to food poisoning. It is a clear-cut case of mixing poison in the food,” Shahi said.
Twenty of the children, aged between four and 10, were buried near the school in the village of Masrakh on Wednesday morning.
At a hospital in Chhapra, the main town of Saran district where the school is located, there were emotional scenes as children, their limbs dangling and heads lolling, were admitted.
Other children, lying listless on stretchers, were placed on intravenous drips amid chaotic scenes at the hospital. Outside, inconsolable relatives wept.
“My children had gone to school to study. They came back home crying, and said it hurts,” one distraught father told the NDTV network.
“I took them into my arms, but they kept crying, saying their stomach hurt very badly.”
Running to the school to find out what had happened, the father said he saw “many bodies of children lying on the ground”.
As the death toll continued to rise, angry residents armed with poles and sticks took to the streets of Chhapra.
The mob smashed windows of police buses and other vehicles and overturned a police booth.
“Hundreds of angry people staged a protest in Saran since late Tuesday night, demanding stern action against government officials responsible for this shocking incident,” said district government official S.K. Mall.
India runs the world’s largest free school meal scheme, covering 120 million children. Educators see it as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished.