THE headmistress of an Indian school, where 23 pupils died after eating a free lunch contaminated with pesticides, forced a cook to ignore complaints and serve the suspect food, police have claimed.
Shortly after her instruction, the cook collapsed and, 90 minutes later, the first victim, Anshu Kumar, aged four and a half, died on his way to hospital.
Investigators believe that the mustard oil used in cooking the meal had been contaminated with poisonous organophosphate pesticides.
The scale of the tragedy provoked violent protests from parents and relatives in Chapra, Bihar, one of India's poorest states, and anger throughout the country. Several parents buried the bodies of their children in front of the school in protest yesterday.
"We decided to bury our children in front of the school building to remind the government that they died because of their negligence," said Madav Ram, whose 12-year-old son Rahul was among the victims."
The Midday Meal Scheme is the world's largest and serves free lunches to 120 million pupils throughout India. Many parents send their children to school primarily for the free meal, but there have been widespread complaints of substandard and rotten food.
Abhishek Sinha, a district magistrate, said he believed many of the children who ate the meal at Dharmashati-Gandaman primary school on Tuesday might have been saved had the headmistress, who is now on the run, tasted the food before it was served, as required under the scheme's rules.
He said an adult would have survived the tasting but the children, aged four to 10, were more vulnerable because of their low body weight.
The head, identified as Meena Devi, had been in charge of buying the food for the scheme with government funds.
Sujeet Kumar, a police superintendent, said the school's cook, Manju Devi, had warned the headmistress that the oil may have been contaminated after it began emitting a foul smell during cooking.
"The headmistress said, 'Continue cooking and serve the food to the children.' There is certainly negligence on the part of the headmistress, whether criminal by design or by carelessness, which is under investigation," he said.
Several children approached the cook after she had served them to say it had a strange taste. One survivor, 11-year-old Pinki Kumari, told the 'Times of India' she had been reprimanded when she complained. "When I complained that it's bitter I was scolded and told, 'You people always complain, we'll serve what the government gives us,'" she said.
The cook then tasted the food and collapsed soon after. She and two of her children, who study at the school, were taken to hospital but are now stable. (© Daily Telegraph, London)