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Death toll rises to 22 in Bihar midday meal tragedy

Staff Reporter
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High-level organic phosphorus content suspected

A man grieves over the body of his child who died after consuming a free midday meal in Saran district of Biharon Wednesday.— PHOTO: AFP
A man grieves over the body of his child who died after consuming a free midday meal in Saran district of Biharon Wednesday.— PHOTO: AFP

The death toll in the midday meal tragedy at Chapra in Bihar’s Saran district rose to 22 on Wednesday and preliminary inquiries suggest that a high level of organic phosphorus content in the meal could have caused the deaths of the children at Gandaman Primary School.

On Wednesday, Education Minister P.K. Shahi claimed that political conspiracy to destabilise the government was behind the incident which occurred on Tuesday.

Around 50 children were rushed to the government hospital and other private hospitals in Chapra as they fell sick after having a meal of rice, dal , potato and soya bean. Sixteen of them died in Chapra itself.

Another four died en route to the Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH). On Wednesday, between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., two more kids lost their lives, taking the toll to 22.

“It is clear that the food contained poison. According to doctors, judging from the vomit, organic phosphorus was the cause of poisoning. Forensic tests will determine what form of the chemical was present in the food,” Mr. Shahi told reporters. “The culprit,” he claimed, “was the vegetable.”

Twenty-four children, three of who are in a critical condition, and one cook are being treated in Patna.

“The pupils of the children were constricted. They had vomiting and stomach ache. From the smell we could deduct that they had organic phosphorus poisoning. Those who died had a high dose of poison intake and their general health was also poor due to which they did not respond to the treatment. We have performed post mortem and blood tests on critical patients to determine the exact levels of poison in their system,” PMCH Superintendent Amarkant Jha Azad told The Hindu .

Cook suspects oil

The phosphorus level was so high that by Wednesday noon, the PMCH had used up nearly 2,000 ampoules of atropine, a drug used to treat poisoning, he said.

Government officials said locals suspected the oil used in preparing the meal to be the cause.

“I used mustard oil in the cooking, about 250 mg in quantity. I did not find anything wrong with the food when I ate it, but I doubt the oil,” cook Manju Kumari said from her hospital bed in Patna.

She said the other cook, Panno Devi, lost her two kids in this incident. “All the food grain and meal items were stored at the house of the headmistress Meena Kumari. The children did complain that the food tasted funny, so I ate it to find out what was wrong with it. By midnight I too started to vomit and fell sick like the children,” Ms. Manju Kumari said.

Mr. Shahi said when Ms. Manju Kumari poured the oil into the pan its colour changed. She even alerted the headmistress, who dismissed the cook’s doubts and told her to continue using the oil. Officials said the headmistress ignored the protocol that mandates teachers and cooks to taste the food before serving it to children. Some children complained to officials that the headmistress coaxed them to eat the food when they complained of bad taste.

The Minister said Ms. Meena Kumari’s husband, Arjun Rai, was an influential political worker. He owned a grocery store from where the grain used in preparing the meal was procured.

The police have filed an FIR against the headmistress and other unknown persons. BJP leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy criticised the government for its “callous response.”

RJD chief Lalu Prasad also visited the PMCH and blamed the Chief Minister for the incident.

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