Cooking Oil Seen as Source of India School Poisonings

The source of poison that killed 23 schoolchildren last week in the Indian state of Bihar was the vessel storing cooking oil used to prepare their lunch, an official said, citing a forensic report released July 20.

Monocrotophos, a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide, was found in the oil container, the food and the utensil in which it was cooked, R. Lakshmanan, who runs the mid-day meals program in the state, said in a telephone interview last night. The chemical, which the U.S. stopped using in 1988 according to the website of the Extension Toxicology Network, is produced by at least 15 manufacturers in the world, according to the Pesticide Action Network’s website.

“This confirms our suspicion that the oil, or what was believed to be oil, was the source of poisoning,” Lakshmanan said in a telephone interview. He didn’t say if the food was cooked just using the insecticide or contaminated oil.

The deaths of the children further tarnished the reputation of an 18-year-old government meals program meant to feed the hungriest children in the poorest corners of India. The plan, 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.

Stolen Food

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.

The forensic report doesn’t indicate whether the poisoning was intentional, Lakshmanan said.

About 50 to 60 children were present, seated on the building’s concrete floor, as lunch was served on July 16 around 1 p.m., relatives said July 18. Most ate off metal plates, 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 that followed the deaths.

A soyabean dish served to the children may have been prepared using the pesticide as a cooking medium instead of oil, the Times of India reported, citing sources in the federal human resources development ministry it didn’t name. The school principal scolded the students who refused to eat the dish because of its black color and smell, according to the report.

The condition of three children undergoing treatment in the Intensive Care Unit of the Patna Medical College hospital had improved, the hospital said in a bulletin July 20. All the other children and the school cook were also stable and the patients were now being fed orally, it said.

‘Gross Negligence’

Lakshmanan, in a separate interview on July 19, said the tragedy wouldn’t have occurred if rules had been followed and condemned the “gross negligence” of the school principal in the village of Dharmasati Gandawan. He rejected charges the deaths represented a wider government failure.

“There has been a very callous attitude and gross negligence on the part of the headmistress,” he said in the provincial capital of Patna. “Our principals have been given detailed training as recently as April, including instructions to taste the food before feeding the students.”

Many of the grieving families in Bihar buried their dead children in the school grounds or in nearby paddy fields to protest what they said was official indifference to their loss.

Sugarcane Field

Nirmala Kumari, the sister-in-law of the school cook, said in an interview at her home in the village on July 18 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.

The principal’s husband had used the same type of pesticide, found in the deadly meal, on his sugarcane field about two weeks ago, the Indian Express reported, without saying where it got the information. Mainly applied against cotton pests, monocrotophos, is also used on citrus, olives, rice, maize, sorghum, sugarcane, peanuts and potatoes among other crops, according to the Pesticide Action Network.

Kitchen Plans

“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. “This is going on all over Bihar and probably India.”

A case has been lodged against the principal, local magistrate in Saran district Manish Sharma said naming her as Meena Devi. She’s on the run and being sought by police, he said. A store run by her husband provided the food for the school meals, local media reported.

In the tragedy’s wake, Bihar’s government will build a permanent kitchen at each of the 14,000 schools in the province without one, Lakshmanan said. Schools received just 3.5 rupees (6 cents) a day to feed each child below 10 years of age, he said. In Bihar alone, the lunch program feeds 12.5 million children, according to Lakshmanan.

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.

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.

As parents vowed to keep their children out of school, Lakshmanan said his government was seeking to reassure them. “The moral responsibility falls on the government,” he said. “But this cannot be treated as a systemic failure, it’s one of human error,” or a crime committed by an individual, he said.

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