The fatal poisoning of 23 children during a school lunch in India was most likely caused by the presence of organophosphate-based pesticide in the food, officials said, as distraught parents buried their dead yards from where the meal had been served.
Police collected samples of cooked and raw food from the school in the village of Dharmasati Gandawan in the eastern Bihar state and had sent them for forensic testing, said Manish Sharma, a magistrate for Bihar’s Saran district. They also seized utensils and a plastic container in which the oil used to cook the meal had been stored amid reports that it may have previously been used for pesticide.
While tests on samples of the contaminated meal were yet to be completed, Amarkant Jha Amar, medical superintendent at the Patna Medical College and Hospital where 24 children and the school cook were being treated, said doctors were unanimous in concluding the cause of death.
“It seems organophosphorus was mixed in the food,” Amar said. “The quantity was huge, which is why we’ve seen such devastating effects.”
About 50 to 60 children were present as lunch was served around 1 p.m. on July 16, relatives said yesterday. Most ate off metal plates sitting on the building’s concrete floor, many of which were strewn around the classroom. The meal had been cooked just outside on a makeshift stove made of bricks, which has since been destroyed during protests.
One of the children to survive, Aditya Prasad, remembered from his Patna hospital bed being handed a plateful of rice, lentils, soybeans and potatoes.
Nothing seemed different. It was the same meal the 8-year-old ate most days, cooked at school and paid for by a government program called the Mid-Day Meal Scheme meant to feed the hungriest children in the poorest corners of India.
He remembers eating a little, then seeing his friend, Rama, vomit and collapse. His sister, 6-year-old Khushi -- her name means happiness -- was vomiting too. He stopped eating, a reaction that may have saved his life. Twenty-three others weren’t so lucky.
Many of the grieving families had buried their dead children in the school grounds or in nearby paddy fields to protest what they said was official indifference to their loss. Some of the small pits lay empty, a sign of the fears that others may die.
“The government doesn’t care about us, that’s why no one has come,” said Nirmala Kumari, whose sister-in-law cooked the meal and is now stable in hospital in Patna along with several of the extended family’s children. “Our children won’t study, but at least they’ll be alive.”
Kumari said that it was clear there was something wrong with some of the meal ingredients as they were being prepared. The school principal was told of a foul smell and strange color to the food, and was told lunch shouldn’t be served to the children, Kumari said as she stared out of the window of her family’s village home. The cook was overruled.
Two days after the deaths, the anger over what had happened was still raw. “These kids were being fed sub-standard food. We all know that as fact in this village,” Dilip Kumar, 20, a student and resident, said yesterday. “This is going on all over Bihar and probably India.”
Sharma, the magistrate, said a case has been lodged against the principal, whom he named as Meena Devi. She’s on the run and being sought by police, he said.
The deaths of the children led to protests in Patna, and further tarnished the reputation of the 18-year-old meal scheme. The program, part of a web of polices aimed at easing the malnourishment that afflicts almost half the country’s children, has been criticized by the Supreme Court and the comptroller and auditor general for corruption and inefficiencies.
The central government, which pays for the lunches, promised an investigation into the deaths as protesters burned police vehicles and stormed the local offices of the program’s administrators.
“It is an aberration that this has happened,” M. Mangapati Pallam Raju, the minister for human resources development, who is responsible for funding the midday meals, said July 17. “It is an unfortunate incident. It is not a recurring thing.”
Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has been admonished by the Supreme Court for its management of the school meal program. In 2010, the latest data available, the central government set aside $80 million for food and $73 million to pay for cooking materials, including the construction of hygienic sheds and water supplies. The state government managed to spend only $30 million of that, the planning commission report found.
Primary school children were to receive 450 calories of food, enriched with 12 grams of protein, while secondary school children were to receive 700 calories, enriched with 20 grams of protein. Weekly menus were set to vary between vegetables, kidney beans, lentils, rice and a local cereal called daliya.
By 2008, the program was underperforming, the comptroller and auditor general of India found. Only 10 percent of the sheds required for hygienic cooking were constructed by March 2008, three years after the program was meant to have universal coverage, and a third of schools lacked clean drinking water. In a survey of 20 schools, $1.5 million was found to be missing, showing the process to be “fraught with the risk of fraud and misappropriation.”
At least 563 metric tons of food rotted before it reached children in 136 schools that were surveyed, out of some 35,000 schools in the state.
Foreshadowing this week’s tragedy, the report also found that not a single cooked meal had been examined by a medical officer since the program’s debut. The food should be taste-tested by at least two adults before being served to children, and the grain must be free of pests and insecticide, according to a program document.
“My faith in the midday meal program is broken,” Mohar Saha, the father of second-grader Chitu Kumar, one of the 27 surviving children in the Patna hospital, said July 17. “I don’t want to live in doubt by continuing to give my children school food.”
India needs programs such as the midday meals and other publicly funded food aid programs, according to economists Jean Dreze and Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen. Both have cautioned against mismanagement and corruption.
Graft has plagued all three of India’s major food aid programs. A Bloomberg News investigation last year showed how $14.5 billion in food meant for the poor was stolen from a rationing system and sold on the black market.
Rapid economic growth hasn’t dented malnourishment rates, and more people than ever don’t consume government-recommended minimums. Some 900 million Indians hover just above starvation but below well-nourished, according to the latest data available, up from 472 million in 1983.
For children, things have barely improved. India has the highest percentage of malnourished children in the world except for East Timor, according to the 2012 annual Global Hunger Index. In the 2005 National Family Health Survey, when India last weighed, measured and counted its children for signs of hunger, it found 46 percent -- 31 million -- weighed too little for their ages, almost an entire Canada of malnourished under-3-year-olds. In 1999, that number was 47 percent.
In Saran district, where the school was, food is scarce. A World Food Program assessment of the state found that the district ranked second to last in food production per acre.
Amid that need, a free school meal could mean the difference between going to bed hungry or with a full stomach. Or so the villagers of Dharmasati Gandawan thought.
“There’s no order or organization to this process,” said Champa Devi, 45, from the nearby hamlet of Chaipur Chamaria. “These schools weren’t serving food, they were serving poison.”