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20 children die, more sick after eating free lunch at Indian school; insecticide suspected

At least 20 children died and many others were sick after eating a free school lunch that was tainted by a heavy dose of insecticide, Indian officials said Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear how chemicals ended up in the food in a school in the eastern state of Bihar, though one official said the food may not have been properly washed before it was cooked.

The children, between the ages of 8 and 11, fell ill Tuesday soon after eating their school lunch in Masrakh, a village 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the state capital of Patna. School authorities immediately stopped serving the meal of rice, lentils, soya and potatoes as the children started vomiting. The lunch, part of a popular country-wide campaign to give at least one hot meal to children from poor families, was cooked in the school kitchen.

The children were quickly rushed to a local hospital and later to Patna for treatment, said state official Abhijit Sinha.

In addition to the 20 children who died, another 27 children as well as the school cook have been hospitalized, he said. Ten of them were in serious condition.

Authorities suspended an official in charge of the free meal scheme in the school and registered a case of criminal negligence against the school headmaster, who fled as soon as the children fell ill.

P.K. Sahi, the state education minister, said a preliminary investigation suggested the food had traces of an organophosphate used as an insecticide on rice and wheat crops. It's believed the grain was not washed before it was served at the school, he said.

However, local villagers said the problem appeared to be with a side dish of soya and potatoes. Children who had not eaten that dish were fine, although they had eaten the rice and lentils, the villagers said.

India's midday meal scheme is one of the world's biggest school nutrition programs. State governments have the freedom to decide on menus and timings of the meals depending on local conditions and availability of food rations. It was first introduced in southern India, where it was seen as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school.

Since then the program has been replicated across the country covering some 120 million school children as part of an effort to address concerns about malnutrition. According to the government, nearly half of all Indian children suffer from malnutrition.

Although there have been occasional complaints about the quality of the food served, or the lack of hygiene, the tragedy in Bihar appeared to be the worst associated with the massive food program.

Bihar's top elected official, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, has ordered an inquiry into the deaths.