Police In India Probe Poisoning Of School Children

In India, dozens of children in the eastern state of Bihar have been poisoned after consuming a free school lunch. More than 20 children have died. Authorities are trying to determine if the poisoning was deliberate or accidental.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning. In India, the death toll stands at 23. All the victims children, who ate what authorities believe was a contaminated school lunch. A preliminary police investigation in the state of Bihar is focusing on whether there was negligence, attempted murder, perhaps even criminal conspiracy in these deaths. Medical teams examining the children suspect that they ingested high quantities of toxic pesticide. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from New Delhi for the latest. Julie, good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: I listened to the words criminal conspiracy and I - I mean, that's sort of stunning, if true. Why would someone poison school children?

MCCARTHY: Well, you're right. It is. But also let's keep in mind this is one line of inquiry that investigators are pursuing, according to the police who are responsible for this. Bihar's Education Minister raised the possibility yesterday of a political conspiracy to discredit the administration, the current administration in advance of next year's election. But, you know, critics say the government is only deflecting its failure here. Aditi Kanna is a senior editor with the news website India Incorporated.com and here's what she has to say.

ADITI KANNA: Their first instinct is to talk about how it is probably a mischievous game to destabilize the local government. A case of deflecting, yes, but also a case of pushing it to the back burner as soon as possible, which is what ends up happening in some of these cases in India. This investigation could basically go on for the next 10 years.

MCCARTHY: So, you know, whether this poisoning was accidental or deliberate has not yet been determined. It's too early. But local media say that the headmistress of the school has disappeared - perhaps, you know, to hide from angry family members who are reported, David, to have buried their children yesterday on the grounds of the school in protest.

GREENE: Wow. You know, but we're learning some more, Julie, as the investigation starts and as medical examiners do their work. These children apparently died very suddenly. I mean, what more do we know about how all of this happened?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, no sooner had they taken a few bites from their lunch of soybean curry, many of the kids began complaining that it was bad. And they went to the cook and they insisted that she try it. Well, she did taste it and she is now described as battling for her life in the hospital along with the other children who survived.

In fact, the cook is reported to have confronted the head mistress of the school, telling her that the mustard oil used for cooking was bad. Now, interestingly, the headmistress' husband supplied the food, according the education minister. You know, of these are not arms' length transactions and corruption has plagued this national lunch program.

And the doctors who are examining the children said they suspected the food was contaminated with phosphate, you know, which is used to preserve grains and cereal. The Hindustan Times reported today that an insecticide container was used to cook the school meal.

GREENE: And Julie, you mentioned the free school lunch program. This is a huge, huge program in India. And, I mean, if this whole program comes under scrutiny, I mean, this could be enormous.

MCCARTHY: That's right. And the scrutiny is on. I mean, this story is really about is how India feeds its poorest children. India has more people facing difficulty getting access to food than any other country in the world. Forty-three percent of its young children are malnourished. And this tragedy occurred when these school children - all under the age of 12 - were eating the state-sponsored free lunch, the Midday Meal.

It's a scheme that reaches 120-million children and it was developed to boost the nutrition for Indian children but also school enrollment. And it does. Because millions of families send their kids because this is the one hot meal of the day they're going to get.

GREENE: We've been talking to NPR's Julie McCarthy about a tragedy in India. Twenty-three children dead after eating what authorities believe was contaminated school lunch. Julie, thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you, David.

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