Health & Medicine

Investigation continues into school meals in India that killed 22 students

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A girl eats lunch at the Bihar School for Blind Girls on May 5, 2009. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user JP Davidson.)

Twenty-two people died in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, after eating a poisoned meal of rice, soybeans and lentils at a local school Tuesday.

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The principal of the school fled shortly after the incident, leading investigators to question whether the poisoning may have been intentionally organized, rather than an accident.

The contaminated food was part of India's universal free lunch program, ordered by the country's Supreme Court in 2010, which serves more than 120 million students and is the largest in the world. Officials said that the program is too large for them to be able to monitor the safety of every meal, adding that the responsibility lies on officials at the local level. 

But, in the village of Dharmasati Gandawa, Bihar, local civil servants allowed cooking oil to be stored in containers that once held pesticide. 

"The cook said to me when she was cooking she pointed out that the oil looked discolored and dodgy. She drew it to the attention of the teacher who said the oil was homemade and safe to use," said PK Shahi, Education Minister of Bihar.

In small schools, like in Dharamasati Gandawa, the rice and other food for the school lunches are delivered to the school principal's house.

As students began to fall ill, the school's principal, Meena Devi disappeared. Local police are investigating her whereabouts.

News that the cooking oil had been purchased from the store owned by the Devi's husband raised suspicion whether the incident was an accident or planned.

On Wednesday, Shahi said he had reason to believe the poisoning was part of a plot to destabilize Bihar's government led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

"It is a criminal case of poisoning. The deaths occurred due to mixing of poison in the food material," Shahi said. "Doctors who have looked into the matter have said that the mix of organic phosphorus has been found."

Supporters of the free lunches are concerned this incident and others like the 50 students made ill by a lunch in the Madhubani District on Wednesday will threaten public opinion of what many consider to be an important and helpful program.

"In India, while everyone condemns what has happened in Bihar, there's also sort of a pullback saying 'Hey this is a tragedy and things need to be done to improve, but lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.'," said Shoba Narayan, a freelance journalist based in India.

School principals in Bihar have now been ordered to personally taste-test food before it's served to students. 

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