GANDAMAN, India – Grieving parents rampaged through a village in eastern India to protest the deaths of 23 pupils who ate a poisoned school lunch and the perceived slow police response to the tragedy, officials said Friday.
Parents smashed up the home of the school’s headmistress and attacked government offices in the village in impoverished Bihar state, where the children died after being served a meal, apparently laced with insecticide, on Tuesday.
“Why have the police not been able to arrest the headmistress who forced our children to eat poisonous food? She should be killed,” said bereaved father Surendra Rai, who took part in the raid late Thursday after most of the children were buried.
Many of the victims, aged four to 12, from Gandaman village, were laid to rest on a playing field adjacent to the primary school that served the free meal of rice, lentils and potatoes — the only meal of the day for many.
Some 30 children remain sick in hospitals, mainly in the state capital Patna, officials said.
Police said they are probing whether the food or the cooking oil was accidentally or deliberately poisoned, after initial tests showed traces of insecticide. The results of forensic tests on the food are expected to be ready later Friday.
The parents of the dead children ransacked the home of headmistress Meena Kumari, who fled the village as pupils started to fall ill, smashing windows and attempting to set the property on fire, angry that she had not been arrested.
Anguished parents overnight also tried to break into two small government offices where food supplies, which are rationed for residents, are thought to be stored, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
Rai said his eight-year-old daughter had died within minutes of eating the lunch, echoing stories from other parents who said their children perished in their arms before they could get them to hospital.
India runs the world’s largest school feeding programme involving 120 million children, and 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 throughout the country often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and occasionally sub-standard food.
Senior police officer Sujit Kumar said they had raided the home of Kumari, who fled with her husband and brother-in-law, when they saw children fainting in the school.
“We found bags of fertilisers and pesticides kept next to bags of potato and rice in the headmistress’s house,” Kumar told AFP.
“She was an educated woman, so why was she storing poison and food together?”
Parents said the headmistress had invited every child from the village to attend school on Tuesday as she wanted to distribute free books and uniforms.
“I sent my daughter hoping she would get all the books for the year but she never came home,” said Ajay Kumar, a farmer whose five-year-old daughter was among the victims.
A large field at the front of the school where the pupils used to play has been turned into a mass graveyard, where many of the children have been buried in protest at the tragedy.
Mounds dot the field marking individual graves where children were laid to rest, many along with their favourite toys.