School Lunch Kills 22 Children in Eastern India

At least 22 Indian children died and 25 others are being treated in the hospital after eating a contaminated lunch at a state-run primary school in the eastern state of Bihar, prompting violent protests.

The students, many of them less than 10 years old, and a cook fell ill yesterday after having eaten at the school in the province’s Chhapra region, local administration official Abhijit Sinha said by phone. All those being treated had been moved to the Patna Medical College, Manish Sharma, a local magistrate said. There were conflicting reports over whether the cook had also died.

The tragedy may have been caused by the presence of organophosphorus in the food, P.K. Sahi, Bihar’s education minister, said at a press conference in the provincial capital of Patna, citing the initial findings of doctors treating survivors. The school’s cook had expressed concern over the quality of the oil used to prepare the meal, Sahi said without saying where he got the information from. Organophosphorus compounds are commonly found in pesticides.

Provinces in India provide free lunch on school days in a bid to improve nutrition levels and increase attendance. India has the highest percentage of malnourished children in the world except for East Timor, according to the 2012 annual Global Hunger Index. The report, compiled by a group of non-governmental organizations including the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, said 43.5 percent of Indian children are underweight.

Teacher Missing

The government of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ordered an official inquiry as television footage showed local people armed with sticks and poles attacking buildings and setting a bus on fire in the area. Opposition politicians called a strike today in the district to protest the deaths.

The head teacher of the school and her family were absconding, Sahi told reporters. Television channels including CNN-IBN broadcast images of villagers crowding a sparsely furnished school building that was strewn with metal plates.

The country has a web of policies to provide free or subsidized food for the poor, including the Mid-Day Meals plan that was adopted in 1995. The effectiveness of the programs has been curbed by rampant corruption and poor governance, investigations by Bloomberg News showed last year.

Corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates have looted as much as $14.5 billion in food intended for public distribution to impoverished families in the state of Uttar Pradesh, neighboring Bihar, alone.

More than three-quarters of the 1.2 billion population eats less than the minimum targets set by the government. The ratio has risen from about two-thirds in 1983.

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