India lunch deaths children buried in Bihar school

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Nineteen of the 23 children who died after eating a tainted free school meal in India's Bihar state have been buried in and around the school grounds.

Angry parents say they want the graves to serve as a reminder that the children died due to state negligence.

A doctor at the local hospital said a chemical used in pesticides was the likely cause of contamination.

In all, 47 primary school children fell ill after consuming the meal of rice and soybeans on Tuesday.

Twenty-two were confirmed dead on Wednesday. A day later Bihar's Principal Secretary Amarjeet Singh confirmed another of the children had died.

Officials say the headmistress of the government school, in the village of Dharmasati Gandaman in Saran district, has fled.

AT THE SCENE

Two days after Dharmasati Gandaman lost so many of its children, the villagers have yet to be visited by any senior police or administration official.

I visited at lunch time and found more than 100 villagers gathered at the school, waiting for someone official to come and speak to them, and offer them some solace.

The school started in 2010 in the village community centre and classes are held in the one large room in the building. There is no sign to tell you that it's even a school.

With 125 children on its rolls, the school has just two teachers, including the headmistress who is nowhere to be found.

The day tragedy struck, there were 108 children in attendance. However, only 87 took the Mid-Day meal. Some of the children said they spat out their food because they found it too bitter. Many vomited after the first bite and were perhaps saved because of that.

Many of the students I spoke to said they were feeling afraid and would not go to school any more. Some said they would never attempt the Mid-Day meal again.

Some children at other schools in the state are now reported to be refusing to eat the free meal.

"We have received complaints that children in some schools in four or five districts have refused to eat the midday meal. We are trying to resolve the issue," Mr Laxamanan, the director of the Mid-Day Meal scheme in Bihar, told the BBC.

The scheme provides free food for students, but often suffers poor hygiene.

It was introduced to combat hunger and boost school attendance, and reaches 120 million children in 1.2 million schools across the country, according to the government.

'Government's negligence'

Angry parents and villagers have buried three children inside the school campus while 16 others have been buried in a nearby area, Patna-based journalist Amarnath Tewary reports from Dharmasati Gandaman.

"People must not ever forget that our children died inside the school because of the government's negligence," Rangeela Prasad Yadav, whose 11-year-old grand-daughter Mamata was among the dead, told the BBC.

More than 100 people from the surrounding villages have attended the funerals and many are still standing around, mourning their loss.

Inside the school, books are strewn around and the kitchen where the deadly meal was cooked has been demolished by angry villagers.

On Wednesday, hundreds of parents and villagers protested by setting four police vehicles on fire.

Armed with poles and sticks, they blocked streets and locked railway gates, halting the movement of trains.

As well as the protests in Dharmasati Gandaman, a crowd set fire to a bus and damaged private property in the nearby town of Chhapra.

Officials said the children showed symptoms of poisoning by organo-phosphorus, a compound also used as a pesticide for crops.

A classroom where contaminated meals were served at a school at Chapra J Inside the school, books are strewn around and the kitchen has been demolished

Bihar State Education Minister PK Shahi told a news conference the cook told him the school had bought a new type of cooking oil and she thought the oil looked "discoloured and dodgy".

She drew it to the attention of the headmistress - who was in charge of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme at the school and had been transferred there recently - who said the "oil was home-made and safe to use".

The minister said the oil had been bought from the grocery store run by the husband of the headmistress.

Mr Shahi said the grocery store owner and other men in his family had fled.

An inquiry has begun and 200,000 rupees ($3,370) in compensation has been offered to the families of each of those who died.

Bihar is one of India's poorest and most populous states.

The Mid-Day Meal was first introduced for poor and disadvantaged children in the southern city of Chennai in 1925.

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