Exclusive: Warnings about safety of free school meals were ignored as 23 pupils die from poisoned lunches

As death toll in Indian tragedy grows, the recriminations begin

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The Independent Online

The Indian school poisoning scandal claimed another victim as it emerged that a number of official warnings about safety standards in the free meals scheme had been ignored by local officials.

At least 23 children in Bihar state have now died after eating a dinner believed to have been contaminated with insecticide, with another 25 receiving treatment. Many succumbed so quickly that they died in their parents’ arms on the way to hospital.

As parents yesterday buried 21 of the dead – aged between four and 12 – outside the Navsrijit Primary School school in a mark of protest, a political row broke out over who is to blame. The cause of the deaths will not be known until the results of forensics tests are received, although suspicions centre on the oil used to prepare the meal, which is said to have been contaminated with organophosphorus.

Police are searching for the headmistress of the school – who went missing as soon as children started falling ill – and her husband, who runs the store from which the food is reported to have been purchased. It is not uncommon in India for people in positions of authority to go into hiding in such instances, often out of concern for their personal safety. Local newspapers quoted police as saying that two containers filled with insecticide were found at their home, along with food intended for midday meals.

Bihar Principal Secretary, Amardeep Sinha, said the headmistress, Meena Devi, had questions to answer. “There have been three clear violations by the headmistress in this case. Firstly, how did pesticide come in contact with cooking or vegetable oil? Secondly, as stated by the cook, there was a foul smell when she heated the oil but the headmistress allowed her to proceed. And thirdly, there are clear instructions that the headmistress is supposed to taste the food before serving it to the children,” he said.

Bihar Education Minister, PK Shahi, hinted at darker political motives, implicating the husband of the headmistress, who is reported to be a member of the opposition RJD party, in a plot against his administration.

While the scale of the tragedy is unprecedented, there were repeated warnings in the last three years of problems with the running of the flagship midday meal scheme in Bihar. Indian government reports seen by The Independent show that inspectors have raised concerns about poor food quality and low standards of hygiene.

A report by India’s Planning Commission three years ago revealed that the daily budget for each pupil’s meal was just Rs 2.1 (2p). The meals are served under a national programme intended to tackle malnutrition for 120 million of the country’s poorest children, yet the commission found that supervision of the scheme at all levels in the state was ineffective. On a visit to one primary school it reported “regular midday meals were not available and the food is often... sub-standard”.

A review of the scheme in Bihar by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) last year found that less than a quarter of the 71,772 schools involved had been inspected. The review warned that poor quality food was often served, food was kept in open and dirty ground and there were no health checks on any schools. Four months ago the Ministry again warned the Bihar government that standards were unacceptable.

HRD Minister, M M Pallam Raju, yesterday confirmed that the Saran district, in which the affected school is situated, was one of those criticised. A report published by the UK campaign group Action Aid in 2010 also highlighted problems in what it called “Bihar’s dysfunctional schools”.

Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) is monitoring the the scheme in Bihar under its Poorest Area Civil Society Programme II. But the department’s latest review of the programme in May raised no concerns about the scheme. The funding for the DfID scheme was raised from £25m to £32m in April to “deepen the coverage through a more comprehensive multisectoral approach, decentralised budget tracking for flagship schemes and targeted interventions for young people”. In a statement, DfID said its partners in India do not work in the area where the incident happened.

In an attempt to avoid a repeat of the poisoning, the Bihar government took out adverts in local newspapers yesterday ordering school heads and cooks to taste meals before serving them. But in the Bihar case it appears that the cook, Manju Devi, had tasted the food and raised concerns about the smell of the cooking oil, only to be told to go ahead with the meal. She remains in hospital and three of her own children were listed among the dead.

Yesterday, as education officials insisted the poisoning incident would not be repeated, another 50 children needed treatment after a meal at a school in nearby Madhubani.