India School Head Teacher Is Arrested Over 23 Toxic Lunch Deaths

The arrested principal of the Indian school where 23 children died after eating a pesticide-laced lunch will face the “full force of the law” if found negligent, Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar state, said after a weeklong search for the head teacher ended.

Speaking after police confirmed the detention of Meena Devi yesterday, Kumar gave details of what he called a “heart-rending incident” that will force the state and central governments to better regulate a program aimed at feeding India’s poorest children. Students were made to eat the food against their will, Kumar said.

Tests released July 20 identified the source of poison that killed the schoolchildren in the village of Dharmasati Gandawan as the vessel storing cooking oil. Monocrotophos, a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide, was found in the container, the food and the utensil in which it was prepared, R. Lakshmanan, who runs Bihar’s Mid-Day Meals Scheme, said.

Kumar yesterday said a new high school and clinic would be built in the village, while families would be provided pensions. Roads will be improved. “We cannot bring back the children who died, but we’ll do whatever is possible to develop the village,” he told reporters in Patna, the provincial capital.

Hungriest Children

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.

About 50 to 60 children were present, seated on the school’s concrete floor, as lunch was served on July 16 around 1 p.m., relatives said two days later.

A soyabean dish given 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. Devi scolded the students who refused to eat the dish because of its black color and smell, according to the report.

‘Gross Negligence’

Lakshmanan said July 19 said the tragedy wouldn’t have occurred if rules had been followed and condemned the “gross negligence” of Devi. He rejected charges the deaths represented a wider government failure. Principals had been instructed as recently as April to taste the food before feeding students, he said.

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

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.

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