Thousands of school children refused mid-day meals in Bihar, fearful of being poisoned after 22 children died after eating lunch reportedly contaminated with insecticide, officials said on Thursday.
To allay their fears, the government asked the school principals and cooks to taste the food before serving it to students. The children, aged four to 12, died after eating lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a school in Bihar's Saran district.
Children elsewhere in the state dumped their meals in bins or refused to even touch them, despite pleas from school officials. "Parents have warned their children to not even touch the meal served in the school," R Lakshmanan, director of the mid-day meal scheme in Bihar, said, "We are trying to convince everyone that the tragedy will not occur again."
The Bihar government on Thursday came out with a newspaper advertisement declaring it mandatory for the principals and cooks of all primary schools to taste mid-day meals before serving them to children. The 'public notice' went on to say that this is not a new directive. Issued by the state's principal secretary, education, Amarjeet Sinha, it said schools had been directed to follow this procedure in the past too and not to use poor quality material in cooking mid-day meals.
"The direction should be followed strictly, failing which stringent administrative action will be initiated," the notice read. The notice also directed the principals to ensure that insecticides and fertilisers are not stored with eatables.
The Union ministry for human resource development is also putting in place a system to check the quality of mid-day meals. This includes availability of a building where cooking can be done for schools that are in the open, proper storage facility for provisions and availability of vessels. Also, mothers of the students will also be roped in to taste the meals as well as supervise the cooking.
The investigations in the tragedy continued, with raids being conducted across Saran. Police raided the home of the school headmistress, Meena Kumari, who fled after the children started dying on Tuesday. "We found two containers filled with insecticide in the headmistress's house kept along with pulses, vegetables and rice allotted for the mid-day meals," said a police officer.
Allegedly, the cook complained to the headmistress about the smell of the oil used to cook the meal, before going ahead on Tuesday. But the headmistress allegedly dismissed her concerns. Meanwhile, the Bihar education minister, PK Shahi, who had said on Wednesday that an investigation will determine whether the food contamination was accidental or deliberate, today refused to resign. "Why should I resign? There was no systemic failure leading the incident. Why should the government take the blame for lapses on the part of certain individuals?" he asked.
NGO suspends mid-day meal supply
An NGO contracted to supply food packets to 2,200 schools spread across four districts of Bihar has announced it was suspending its operations from Thursday. The organisation, Ekta Shakti Foundation, which supplied food packets in Patna, Gaya, Vaishali and Nalanda districts, reportedly took the decision after children in many schools refused to accept their food packets in the wake of the Saran tragedy.
Reached for a reaction, Sinha said, "We'll hold a meeting with them and persuade them to resume supplies."
(With inputs from AFP)