Cause Of Indian School Lunch Poisoning Still Unknown

At least 21 children are dead, and nearly two dozen others are sick, after eating contaminated food in India. The children became sick after eating their daily free lunch at a school in the eastern state of Bihar. Officials say it appears the food contained pesticide, but it's not clear if it the victims were poisoned deliberately.

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Anger spilled onto the streets of the Indian state of Bihar today.

This after more than 20 children died after eating a free government-sponsored school lunch. Doctors say the victims show symptoms of insecticide poisoning. Today, protesters attacked police vehicles in Chhapra, a city near the children's school. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: As protesters vented their rage at the government, family members in the village of Masrakh quietly buried their children. Aged 8 to 11, they were victims of what is believed to be the worst episode of poisoning to hit India's massive school lunch program.

They had just eaten rice, lentils and soy beans as part of the so-called midday meal scheme. It feeds some 120 million Indian children for free and, as a result, attracts greater enrollment in school.

But parents reported that their children had come home complaining of stomach pain and were taken to hospital after they began vomiting. Dr. K.M. Dubey said the children showed signs of having been poisoned with a chemical used in pesticides.

DR. K.M. DUBEY: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: The children had severe congestion and dilated pupils, symptoms of organophosphorus poisoning. That's a compound used as a pesticide for crops and is very dangerous. He says even a small quantity would prove fatal for small children.

Bihar's education minister, P.K. Shahi, did not rule out the possibility that the poisoning was a deliberate attempt to discredit the current political administration.

P.K. SHAHI: But the investigators have to find out. They have to unravel the truth. They have to find out whether it is accidental. I am not saying that it is a deliberate mischief.

MCCARTHY: He said if investigators determine it was due to poor hygiene or state negligence, then he'll own the disaster. Poor nutrition is so widespread here that free school lunch is a must for millions. But this tragedy highlights a cruel contradiction: While India's economy has galloped along the past 20 years, the rates of malnutrition in its children remain among the highest in the world. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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