, GANDAMAN, July 18- A children’s playing field outside an Indian primary school was turned into a mass graveyard Thursday as victims of a poisoned lunch scandal which killed 23 youngsters were laid to rest.
As grieving parents spoke of how they relied on the school to give their children their main daily meal, officials in impoverished Bihar state tried to stem a wave of panic among other pupils who were dumping their free lunches.
Police meanwhile stepped up their investigation, exploring the possibility that the food given to the youngsters was poisoned deliberately, as the school’s headmistress remained on the run.
The burials were held on an area of open ground just outside the school where pupils play during their breaks, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.
“The school killed our children and so we decided to bury all of them here,” said Shanti Devi, whose daughter was among those being laid to rest outside the school in Gandaman village.
“The government is responsible for converting a playground into a burial ground,” she told AFP.
The sense of anger was echoed by many other parents as they tried to come to terms with the deaths of loved ones.
“My children always liked eating at the school and I was happy that at least they were getting one square meal every day, but I never dreamt that it would end up killing them,” said Sanjudevi Mahato as she wept for the loss of three of her four children.
“My husband is bedridden. We have no food at home and it was only to ensure that my children got at least some food that I sent them to the school,” she told AFP at a hospital in the state capital Patna.
Mahato was speaking as her surviving child, an eight year old girl named Kajal, received treatment from the effects of the poison.
“She only survived because she could detect the pungent smell in the food and refused to eat,” Mahato said.
Jankidevi Kumar, whose five-year-old son Ashok died, said it was not the first time that there had been complaints about food at the school.
“My elder son kept complaining that the food stank…it tasted bitter, but the headmistress insisted that all the children should eat it,” she told AFP outside the school grounds.
The 23 children, aged four to 12, died after eating lentils, potatoes and rice cooked at the school on Tuesday. Initial tests have shown the meal may have been contaminated with insecticide.
Some 30 children are still being treated for food poisoning, although doctors say their condition is not life threatening.
“The death toll has risen to 23,” Bihar state education secretary Amarjeet Sinha told reporters.
“It seems like a deliberate case of poisoning and we are expecting a forensic report to confirm the cause behind the incident.”
No one has yet been arrested over the deaths, although police conducted raids on Wednesday night across the local district of Saran.
They raided the home of headmistress Meena Kumari, who fled after the children started dying on Tuesday, a senior officer said on condition of anonymity.
State education minister P.K. Shahi said Wednesday police were probing whether the food was accidentally or deliberately poisoned.
The minister said the cook complained to the headmistress about the smell of the oil before the meals were served on Tuesday but the headmistress dismissed her concerns.
The tragedy has sparked panic elsewhere in Bihar, with reports from dozens of schools of children dumping their meals in bins and refusing to eat them.
“Parents have warned their children to not even touch the meal served in the school,” Lakshmanan, a senior state government official who uses only one name, told AFP.
“Some of the students dumped the lunch in school dustbins and we are trying to convince everyone that the tragedy will not be repeated,” said Lakshmanan, director of the midday meal scheme in Bihar.
India’s state governments run the world’s largest school feeding programme involving 120 million children. Bihar is one of India’s most populated and poorest states.
Educators see the scheme as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished. But children often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and occasionally sub standard food.
Authorities have instructed all teachers and cooks in the state to first taste free lunches before serving them to children.
“We will have to make parents believe that midday meals provide nutrition and are not meant to kill students,” said Lakshmanan.