New Delhi: Authorities in Bihar condemned the gross negligence of the principal of the school where 23 children died after eating lunch, rejecting charges the deaths represented a wider government failure.

In an interview in his office on Friday, R. Lakshmanan, who runs the Mid-Day Meals Scheme in Bihar under which dozens of children below 10 years of age were being fed in the village of Dharmasati Gandawan, said the 16 July tragedy wouldn’t have happened if rules had been followed.

There has been a very callous attitude and gross negligence on the part of the headmistress, he said in the provincial capital of Patna. Our principals have been given detailed training as recently as April, including instructions to taste the food before feeding the students.

The fatal poisoning was most likely caused by the presence of organophosphate-based pesticide in the food, doctors treating the survivors have said. Results of tests on samples of cooked and raw food taken by police from the school may be known today, officials told reporters.

As of now, it is a case of poison in the food and whether it was accidental or deliberate, that is a matter of police investigation, Lakshmanan said in the interview.

Police have also seized utensils and a plastic container in which the oil used to cook the meal had been stored amid reports that it may have previously been used for pesticide.

Condition stable

About 50 to 60 children were present as lunch was served around 1 pm, relatives said 18 July. Most ate off metal plates sitting on the building’s concrete floor, many of which were strewn around the classroom. The meal had been cooked just outside on a makeshift stove made of bricks, which has since been destroyed during protests.

The condition of three children undergoing treatment in the Intensive Care Unit of the Patna Medical College hospital had improved, the hospital said in a bulletin on Saturday. All the other children and the school cook were also stable and the patients were now being fed orally, it said.

The deaths of the children further tarnished the reputation of an 18-year-old government meals program meant to feed the hungriest children in the poorest corners of India. The plan, part of a web of polices aimed at easing the malnourishment that afflicts almost half the country’s children, has been criticized by the Supreme Court and the comptroller and auditor general for corruption and inefficiencies.

Graft has plagued all three of India’s major food aid programs. A Bloomberg News investigation last year showed how $14.5 billion in food meant for the poor was stolen from a rationing system and sold on the black market.

Above starvation

Rapid economic growth hasn’t dented malnourishment rates, and more people than ever don’t consume government-recommended minimums. Some 900 million Indians hover just above starvation but below well-nourished, according to the latest data available, up from 472 million in 1983.

Many of the grieving families in Bihar buried their dead children in the school grounds or in nearby paddy fields to protest what they said was official indifference to their loss.

Nirmala Kumari, the sister-in-law of the school cook, said in an interview at her home in the village on 18 July that it was clear there was something wrong with some of the meal ingredients as they were being prepared.

The school principal was told of a foul smell and strange color to the food, and was told lunch shouldn’t be served to the children, Kumari said as she stared out of the window of her family’s village home. The cook was overruled.

‘Sub-standard food’

These kids were being fed sub-standard food. We all know that as fact in this village, Dilip Kumar, 20, a student and resident, said. This is going on all over Bihar and probably India.

A case has been lodged against the principal, local magistrate in Saran district Manish Sharma said naming her as Meena Devi. She’s on the run and being sought by police, he said. A store ran by her husband provided the food for the school meals, local media reported.

In the tragedy’s wake, Bihar’s government will build a permanent kitchen at each of the 14,000 schools in the province without one, Lakshmanan said. Schools received just Rs3.50 (6 cents) a day to feed each child below 10 years of age, he said. In Bihar alone, the lunch program feeds 12.5 million children, according to Lakshmanan.

‘Human error’

Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has been admonished by the Supreme Court for its management of the school meal program. In 2010, the latest data available, the central government set aside $80 million for food and $73 million to pay for cooking materials, including the construction of hygienic sheds and water supplies. The state government managed to spend only $30 million of that, the planning commission report found.

As parents vowed to keep their children out of school, Lakshmanan said his government was seeking to reassure them. The moral responsibility falls on the government, he said. But this cannot be treated as a systemic failure, it’s one of human error or a crime committed by single person. BLOOMBERG

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