A children’s playing field outside an Indian primary school was turned into a mass graveyard on 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.
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.
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.
India’s state governments run the world’s largest school feeding program 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.