by Logan Keziah
At an elementary school in Northeastern India, 22 children are dead after being exposed to a dangerous chemical through free meals provided to them at school. The children affected by the chemically tainted meals are from Dharmasati, a Saran district village, in Bihar state, and were between the ages of 5 and 12. The free lunches were tainted by Organophosphorus, an insecticide commonly used in agriculture. The chemical related to Sarin Gas, a nerve agent used in chemical warfare, can cause irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, paralysis, and seizures at high doses. 22 children have been reported as fatalities from the incident, and at least 25 more have been sent to hospitals, many in critical condition.
The meals were provided to the children as part of a government program that was established with a 2001 Supreme court decision that all government schools in India must provide free lunch to children under 13. The program, established in response to governmental findings that over half of Indian children suffer from some variation of malnutrition, is one of the world’s largest school nutrition programs. It was very popular, as it provided children aged 6 months to 14 years with hot cooked food, and some with take home rations. It had been hailed as one of the most successful major scale nutrition programs in the world, and on average fed 1.4 million children a day (read more).
District magistrate Abhijit Sinha, in an interview with CNN affiliate, CNN-IBN, said that the deaths of the children were very clearly the result of poisoning and that a full investigation has been launched. P.K. Sahi the state Education Minister made the following comments about the devastating tragedy
“Twenty million children are being served hot meals in about 73,000 elementary schools. We have been endeavoring to improve the quality … However, the challenge is still there because the magnitude of this program is so huge that there are a number of challenges.”
He added: “It is really very unfortunate. Even though I would unhesitatingly admit that there are some quality issues before us, but this is the first incident which has happened in the state. In the past we have received complaints regarding quality, but the incident of this nature has happened for the first time. It has really shocked us — shocked the entire state.” read full article here
The Indian authorities suspended the government official who oversaw the meal plan and filed criminal negligence charges against the school head master. The response to the tragedy has included villagers protesting and rioting in the village and others in the in the nearby state capital. Rioters closed shops, overturned and burned vehicles, and more.
Although details in the case are still being uncovered, it is not yet clear to authorities whether the contamination was accidental or intentional. The food was cooked in the school’s kitchen and there seems to be minimal concern of widespread contamination. All of India, and the world, mourn with the parents and families of the Dharmasati village children who were lost or injured.