Pesticide in Bihar midday meal, toll 22

FPGrieving parents at Gandaman in Saran district on Wednesday. Prashant Ravi

The death toll from the poisonous midday meal in Bihar more than doubled to touch 22 on Wednesday. At least three of the 25 children admitted in Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH) were said to be critical.

A day after the tragedy, the Bihar government said there was "organophosphorus, an agricultural pesticide" in the meal served to the children at Chhapra's Gandaman primary school. HRD Minister P K Shahi spoke of a "political conspiracy behind the poisoning of the midday meal".

The government has ordered an administrative probe.

Bihar DGP Abhayanand said: "Now that the presence of a pesticide in the midday meal has been confirmed, we are looking at all angles, including that of conspiracy. An FIR has been lodged against the school principal, who is absconding."

All the children who have died or were taken ill were between 6 and 10 years of age. Sources said principal Meena Rai, who was supposed to eat the food first, tasted only the rice and not the soyabean curry, which seems to have made the children ill.

Villagers alleged that school cook Manju Devi, who is now battling for life at PMCH after having eaten the meal, had alerted the principal about the soyabean turning blackish after being put in the oil. But the principal allegedly asked her to pay no attention.

Manju Devi's three children died after eating the midday meal.

Police have collected samples of the food and seized a plastic can in which the oil used to cook the soyabean curry had been stored. Principal Rai allegedly purchased supplies for the midday meal from a shop owned by her husband Arjun Rai, but several villagers pointed out that had the oil — sold loose — been contaminated, complaints would likely have come from Arjun Rai's other customers as well.

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