Mid-day meal tragedy: Food was cooked in insecticide container

PATNA: As the death toll from the mid-day meal tragedy rose to 22, initial reports say that an insecticide container was used to to cook vegetables that was served to children at Dharamsati primary school in Masrakh in Saran district.

The children aged four to 12 fell ill on Tuesday after consuming a lunch of rice, soybean and lentils in the impoverished state of Bihar.

The school, at Mashrakh village in the district of Chapra, provided free meals under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the world's largest school feeding programme involving 120 million children.

 The school headmistress fled after the deaths became known and was dismissed, P.K. Shahi, Bihar's education minister, told a news conference.

"In spite of the cook's complaint (over the smell of cooking oil used for the food), the headmistress insisted on its use and the cook made the food. The children had also complained about the food to the cook," Shahi said.

The cook, who also fell ill after eating the food and was hospitalised, told Reuters television it had looked as if there was a layer of residue at the bottom of the oil jar.

"I thought that this is locally-made oil as often there is an accumulation of residual waste at the bottom ... generally we get just about enough oil to prepare one meal, as there is no space for storage," Manju Devi said.

Two children of Meena Devi were also taken ill. She is now on the run with two other teachers, reports Hindustan Times.

Following the student's statement, police broke open her residential store and found stocks of food and vegetables lying together with pesticides and organic manure.

They said it seemed one of the insecticide containers may have been used to measure or store cooking oil.

The National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Bihar government over the deaths of 22 children as a consequence of the mid-day meal they had. The principal secretary of Bihar education department and the Saran SP have to submit a report in the matter within four weeks.

For the 26 children battling for life at the Patna Medical College Hospital (PMCH), prayers are perhaps what they need the most. Reason: Despite competent doctors, medical facilities at the state's premier medical college are abysmally poor.

If doctors are to be believed, only a few apparatuses at the hospital's paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) function. This is where critically ill children, victims of the lethal mid-day meal at Mashrakh in Saran district on Tuesday, 65km from Patna, have been admitted.

Of the 19 infusion pumps that administer life-saving drugs, only two were functional.

Of the six beds in the PICU, none of the monitors attached to them were working. These monitors record heart rates, blood pressures and oxygen saturation levels.

Hundreds of people have been protesting in Saran since late Tuesday night, demanding strict action against government officials responsible for the tragedy.

Twenty dead children were buried near the school.

A case has been registered against the school's headmistress Meena Devi and other teachers.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar expressed shock over the incident and announced a compensation of Rs.2 lakh to the kin of each of the dead school children.

The deaths triggered a political row with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Wednesday calling Nitish Kumar "insensitive".

"The chief minister of Bihar instead of showing promptness in evacuating the children to a better medical facility has announced a ex-gratia amount of Rs.2 lakh for the children who died after having a mid-day meal. This showcases the insensitivity and the callous attitude," said BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy in Delhi. (Agencies)