NEW DELHI — The children complained that the free lunch at their state school — rice, beans, potato curry, and soy balls — tasted odd. The cook gave it a taste, too. Within half an hour they all began to suffer severe stomach pains followed by vomiting and diarrhea, and within hours at least 22 of the children were dead and dozens of others remained hospitalized, said officials in the northeastern state of Bihar.
By nightfall Wednesday, as angry protests broke out, officials said they believed they had found the cause: cooking oil stored in a container formerly used for insecticides.
School lunch programs became universal in India after a 2001 order by the country’s Supreme Court, and free meals are now served to 120 million children — by far the largest such program in the world. It has been credited with improving school attendance, sometimes substantially. With surveys suggesting that nearly half of Indian children suffer some form of malnutrition, it also serves a vital health purpose.
But like so many government programs in India, it is plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and cases of tainted food are fairly routine, although usually nothing like Wednesday’s tragedy.
While it is still not entirely clear what happened in the Dahrmasati Gandawan village in Bihar’s Saran district, some element of cronyism may have been involved. As news of the tragedy spread, the school’s principal, who had bought the cooking oil from a store owned by her husband, disappeared and has not been seen since, officials said.
But it also laid bare the almost complete failure of the state medical system to deal effectively with the crisis. Parents recounted nightmarish tales of sickness and desperate efforts to find medical care in facilities that were rapidly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of children affected.
Akilanand Mishra, the father of Ashish Kumar Mishra, 5, said he raced to the school after a neighbor told him something was wrong there.
“I saw my son walking towards home, and I brought him back home quickly and took my bike and rushed him to the health center,” Mishra said in a telephone interview.
During the trip, Ashish started throwing up, Mishra said. They arrived at the nearby primary health center and found it mobbed with children and families. Mishra took his son to two other packed clinics before flagging down a private vehicle to take them to the district government hospital. After only a few miles, Ashish died in Mishra’s arms.
“My son died around 4 p.m., and he was the second child to die,” said a weeping Mishra.
Bacterial contamination, a common problem in India, generally takes at least a day to cause serious illness. Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said such episodes tend to happen in places where few things are thrown away, including containers.
“Insecticide containers need to be marked that they should never be used again for food,” she said. “These kind of incidents are rare, and they are tragic when they happen.”
By Wednesday, enraged residents of Gadgaon village began throwing rocks and sticks at government buildings and burned four police vehicles. No one was hurt, said Shashi Singh, the village head.
Mishra complained bitterly about the runaround he got from government doctors. Dr. Shambhu Nath Singh, deputy superintendent of the government hospital in the Saran District, said many of the children who eventually found their way to his hospital were transferred to a hospital in the state capital of Patna, after parents complained that their children failed to improve. But he said the care he and his team delivered was top-notch.
Two children died during the trip to Patna, Singh said.
The local police opened an investigation and were continuing the search for the school’s principal, Abhijit Sinha, the district’s chief civil servant, said in a phone interview.