Fearful Indian children refuse free meals after deaths

A man holds his sick child who consumed spurious meals at a school.

PATNA, India - Thousands of school children were refusing free meals in poverty-stricken eastern India, fearful of being poisoned, after 22 children died from eating lunch apparently contaminated with insecticide, officials said Thursday.

The children, aged four to 12, died after eating lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village school in the state of Bihar on Tuesday, sparking violent protests and an investigation into the cause.

Some 30 children remain ill in hospitals in the state capital Patna and the city of Chhapra after eating the food, which initial tests showed may have been tainted with insecticide.

Children elsewhere in the state were dumping their meals in bins or refusing to even touch them, despite pleas from school officials that the tragedy would not occur again, a senior state government official said.

"Parents have warned their children to not even touch the meal served in the school," Lakshmanan, who uses only one name, told AFP.

"Some of the students dumped the lunch in school dustbins and we are trying to convince everyone that the tragedy will not be repeated," said Lakshmanan, director of the midday meal scheme in Bihar.

India's state governments run the world's largest school feeding programme involving 120 million children. Educators see it as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished.

Bihar is one of India's most populated and poorest states.

As fear about the scheme spread, police stepped up their investigation into the tragedy, conducting raids across the district of Saran, where the village school is located.

Police raided the home of the school headmistress, Meena Kumari, who fled after the children started dying on Tuesday, a senior unnamed officer said.

"We found two containers filled with insecticide in the headmistress's house along with pulses, vegetables and rice allotted for the midday meals," said the officer, who is investigating the deaths.

"Only the headmistress can tell whether the incident was a conspiracy or a blunder caused due to carelessness."

A state government minister has said the cook complained to the headmistress about the smell of the oil used to cook the meal, before going ahead on Tuesday. But the headmistress allegedly dismissed her concerns, the minister said.