PATNA: Thousands of schoolchildren were refusing free meals in poverty-stricken eastern India after 22 children died from eating lunch apparently contaminated with insecticide, officials said on Thursday.
Authorities were trying to reassure frightened students and parents in the state of Bihar as police stepped up their investigation into the tragedy, focusing on the school headmistress who has fled.
The 22 children, aged four to 12, died after eating lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village school on Tuesday, sparking violent protests from angry residents.
Some 30 children remain ill in hospitals in the state capital Patna and the city of Chhapra after eating the food, which initial tests showed may have been tainted with insecticide.
Children elsewhere in the state were dumping their meals in bins or refusing even to touch them, despite pleas from school officials that the tragedy would not recur, a senior state government official said.
“Parents have warned their children to not even touch the meal served in the school,” said Lakshmanan, director of the midday meal scheme in Bihar.
India’s state governments run the world’s largest school feeding program involving 120 million children. Bihar is one of India’s most populated and poorest states.
Educators see the scheme as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished. But children often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and occasionally sub-standard food.
Authorities have instructed all teachers and cooks in the state to first taste the free lunch before serving to the children.