The mid-day meal death toll in Bihar's Saran district rose to 22 with two more children falling victims on Wednesday after consumption of free food sparking violent protests amid suspicions by the state government it was poisoned.
While 16 children, aged below 10 years and studying in Class I to V, had died in Chhapra itself, four others were declared dead on arrival at Patna Medical College Hospital (PMCH) late last night. Two died at the hospital this morning, official and PMCH sources said.
Among the dead were two children of a woman cook of the mid-day meal project Panno Devi. Three children of another woman cook Manju Devi are under treatment at PMCH along with her.
Twenty five others are under medical supervision in PMCH, Superintendent of PMCH Amarkant Jha Azad said. The Superintendent said the ailing children were admitted to ICU of paediatric department and senior doctors were attending to them round-the-clock.
The tragedy took place at the government primary school in Dahrmasati Gandawan village at Mashrakh block, about 25 km from Chhapra and 60 km from state capital on Tuesday.
Students said a lizard tail was found in the food. All the children are reportedly out of danger.
Among the dead in Saran was the cook, who had refused to use the container but was made to by the headmistress, Meena Devi, said a student who witnessed the altercation between the two.
Two children of Meena Devi were also taken ill. She is now on the run with two other teachers.
Following the student's statement, police broke open her residential store and found stocks of food and vegetables lying together with pesticides and organic manure.
They said it seemed one of the insecticide containers may have been used to measure or store cooking oil.
Principal secretary, education, Amarjeet Sinha said preliminary investigation has shown traces of phosphate from insecticides in the cooked vegetables.
Patna Medical College Hospital superintendent Amar Kant Jha, too, said an insecticide mix in the cooking medium could have killed the children.
However, the forensic lab that collected samples is yet to submit its report.
50 students fall ill in Madhubani school
In a separate incident, about 50 students of a government middle school in Madhubani district fell ill after eating food under the midday meal scheme.
The food was served to children of Navtolia Middle School, Bisfi, about 22 km from Madhubani, amid allegations by the students that a dead lizard was found in the meal.
"The oil used to cook the vegetables was foul-smelling. Doctors found the presence of organic phosphorus in the food and vomit. It means the children were poisoned," Bihar education minister PK Shahi told reporters in Patna.
Shahi did not rule out foul play and said investigations will determine whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate.
Bandh in Saran district
Violent protests erupted in Chhapra where 22 children died after consuming mid-day meal in their school. According to television reports, people armed with sticks and rods set blaze a bus and damaged public property.
The tragedy took place at the government primary school in Dahrmasati Gandawan village at Mashrakh block, about 25 km from Chhapra and 60 km from state capital yesterday.
Meanwhile, opposition BJP today gave a call for Saran bandh to protest the Nitish Kumar government following the mid-day meal deaths. The BJP called Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar "insensitive" as the toll of children who ate a mid-day meal at a state-run primary school in Bihar's Saran district rose to 20.
The RJD is also observing Saran bandh on Wednesday in protest against the incident.
The mob smashed windows of police buses and other vehicles and turned over a police booth in Chhapra, the main city of Saran district where the school is located.
"Hundreds of angry people staged a protest in Saran since late Tuesday night, demanding stern action against government officials responsible for this shocking incident," said district government official SK Mall.
Bihar CM announces compensation
Chief minister Nitish Kumar has ordered a high level inquiry into the incident, sources in the CMO said, adding that a Forensic Science Laboratory team will assist in the probe, which will be conducted jointly by Saran Divisional Commissioner and DIG.
Kumar also announced a compensation of Rs two lakh each to the families of the deceased. Of this, Rs 1.5 lakh is from the Disaster Management Fund and Rs 50,000 from CM's Relief Fund.
Pained over the incident, the CM has put off Bhamasah Saman Samaroh scheduled for on Tuesday, sources in the CMO said.
"Instead of showing promptness in evacuating the children to a better medical facility, the chief minister of Bihar has announced an ex-gratia amount of Rs. 2 lakh for kin of children who died after having a mid-day meal. This shows his insensitivity and callous attitude," said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, spokesperson of the party that shared power with the ruling Janata Dal-United for 17 years.
Union HRD minister Pallam Raju said the mid-day meal "appears to be poisonous" and an FIR has already been lodged against the school principal.
The "food has turned killer", screamed a woman whose two sons were among the victims, as a pall of gloom hung over Dandaman village.
There were emotional scenes as children, their limbs dangling and heads lolling to one side, were brought to a hospital in Chhapra.
Other children, lying listless on stretchers, were placed on intravenous drips amid chaotic scenes at the hospital. Outside, inconsolable relatives wept.
"My children had gone to school to study. They came back home crying, and said it hurts," one distraught father told the NDTV network.
"I took them into my arms, but they kept crying, saying their stomach hurt very badly."
Running to the school to find out what had happened, the father said he saw "many bodies of children lying on the ground".
A preliminary investigation has shown the meal may have contained traces of phosphate from insecticide in the vegetables, Sinha from the local government told AFP.
He said doctors were treating victims with atropine, which is effective against organophosphate poisoning.
Media reports quoted villagers as saying the use of contaminated, foul-smelling mustard oil for cooking at the school could also have caused the deaths.
"Investigators are examining mid-day meal samples and samples of victims' vomit. Only the final report of inquiry will reveal the real cause," Sinha said.
The children, all aged under 10, were buried near the school in the village of Masrakh on Wednesday morning as angry residents armed with poles and sticks took to the streets of Chhapra.
(With PTI, ANI, IANS and AFP inputs)