PATNA, India - Thousands of teachers in eastern India are refusing to serve free school lunches, saying it is not part of their job, after the deaths of 23 pupils from food poisoning, officials said on Friday.
The teachers, who began their protest on Thursday, are angry at being forced to supervise the cooking and say they are blamed for the poor quality of the free meals.
"Mid-day meals could not be served in over 4,600 schools across the state out of a total of 70,000 schools covered by the programme," the Bihar director of the lunch programme R. Lakshamanan said.
"About one million students have been deprived of food due to the boycott."
Police on Wednesday arrested the head teacher of the school in Saran district in poverty-stricken Bihar state where the 23 children aged four to 12 died after a lunch of lentils, potatoes and rice that was laced with a lethal pesticide.
A court on Thursday ordered the head teacher, Ms Meena Devi, to be held in judicial custody until August 5 while police question her about the tragedy. No charges have been laid.
"Repeated requests to the government to remove primary teachers from midday meal duty have fallen on deaf ears," Bihar Primary School Teachers' Association general secretary Mahendra Sahi said, according to The Times of India website.
"The Saran school principal was wrongly framed in the case relating to the July 16 tragedy," general secretary Sahi added, vowing that the teachers would not do any non-teaching work from now onwards.
Ms Devi apparently fled shortly after the poisoning, which also left some 30 children ill in hospital and sparked angry street protests. Saran district administrator Abhijit Sinha told AFP the teacher was key to resolving the issue of just how the deadly chemicals ended up in the food.
Oil used to cook the food contained an agricultural insecticide that was five times the strength sold in the marketplace, a forensic report found.
Free lunches are offered to some 120 million schoolchildren throughout India in what is the world's largest school feeding programme. Bihar is one of the country's poorest and most densely-populated states.
Educators see the midday meal scheme as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished.
But children often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and sometimes sub-standard food.
The teachers were staging their protests in many districts of Bihar including Saran where the 23 children died from the poisoned meal, the PTI reported.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar appealed to the teachers to halt their protest.
"The government agrees that the basic job of the primary teachers is to teach and not supervise cooking of meals," he said in televised remarks to reporters.
"But till some alternative arrangements are made they should cooperate in successful run of the scheme," he said.
The teachers are demanding that the government appoint another agency to supervise the lunches so they can concentrate on their academic role.