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2 charged in school lunch poisoning case in India

NEW DELHI — Police in India have charged a school principal and her husband with killing 23 children after feeding them lunches laced with insecticide, officials said Tuesday, in a case that shocked the country.

The principal, Meena Kumari, and her husband, Arjun Rai, went into hiding almost as soon as the young children fell ill at the school in the village of Gandaman in the Saran district of Bihar, a state in India’s northeast.

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Police arrested Kumari a week after the deaths, in July, while Rai absconded for nearly two months.

Murder charges were filed against the couple Sunday night.

Investigators have determined that Kumari provided the school’s cook with cooking oil laced with the same kind of insecticide that Rai sold to local farmers. Of the 52 children attending school July 16, 47 ate the poisoned food — although many objected to the foul smell. Kumari scolded the complaining children and insisted they eat the meal of rice, soybeans, and potato curry.

All 47 children became seriously ill and 23 died, according to Raj Kaushal, a police officer who investigated the case. The children were between 6 and 12 years old, Kaushal said.

India’s midday meal program is one of the most important antipoverty programs in the world and is a vital source of nutrition for India’s children, nearly half of whom suffer some form of malnutrition. The program has also helped boost school attendance in India, where literacy rates remain woefully low.

But food quality and safety standards in the program have long been poor, and the deaths in Bihar have led to a spate of stories about less deadly food-poisoning incidents at other schools.

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