Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tainted Lunches Kill 22 Children in India

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tainted Lunches Kill 22 Children in India

Article excerpt

NEW DELHI -- The children complained that the free lunch at their state school -- rice, beans, potato curry and soy balls -- tasted odd. The cook gave it a taste, too.

Within half an hour, they all began to suffer severe stomach pains followed by vomiting and diarrhea, and within hours, at least 22 of the children were dead and dozens of others remained hospitalized, officials in the northeastern state of Bihar said.

By nightfall Wednesday, as protests broke out, officials said they believed they had found the cause: cooking oil stored in a container formerly used for insecticides.

School lunch programs became universal in India after a 2001 order by the nation's Supreme Court, and free meals are now served to 120 million children -- by far the largest such program in the world. It has been credited with improving school attendance, sometimes substantially. With some surveys suggesting that nearly half of Indian children suffer some form of malnutrition, it also serves a vital health purpose.

But like so many government programs in India, it is plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and cases of tainted food are fairly routine, although usually nothing like Wednesday's tragedy.

While it is still not entirely clear what happened in the village of Dahrmasati Gandawan in Bihar's Saran district, some element of cronyism may have been involved. As news of the tragedy spread, the school's principal, who had bought the cooking oil from a store owned by her husband, disappeared and has not been seen since, officials said.

But it also laid bare the almost complete failure of the state medical system to deal effectively with the crisis. Parents recounted nightmarish tales of sickness and desperate efforts to find medical care in facilities rapidly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of children affected.

Akilanand Mishra, father of Ashish Kumar Mishra, 5, said he raced to the school after a neighbor told him something was wrong there. "I saw my son walking towards home, and I brought him back home quickly and took my bike and rushed him to the health center," Mr. …

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