The mid-day meal death toll in Bihar's Saran district rose to 27 with two more children falling victims on Wednesday after consumption of free food sparking violent protests amid suspicions by the state government it was poisoned.
"The oil used to cook the vegetables was foul-smelling. Doctors found the presence of organic phosphorus in the food and vomit. It means the children were poisoned," Bihar education minister P K Shahi told reporters in Patna.
Shahi did not rule out foul play and said investigations will determine whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate.
As the tragedy sparked a political blame game, Shahi also alleged a political conspiracy against the state government.
"Principal Meena Kumari's husband is close to a political leader," he said. Shahi suspected the poisoning to be caused by insecticides in vegetable or rice.
Union HRD Minister Pallam Raju said an FIR has already been lodged against the school principal. The "food has turned killer", screamed a woman whose two sons were among the victims, as a pall of gloom hung over Dandaman village.
While 16 children, aged below 10 years and studying in Class I to V, had died in Chhapra itself, four others were declared dead on arrival at Patna Medical College Hospital (PMCH) late last night. Two died at the hospital this morning, official and PMCH sources said.
Twenty five others are under medical supervision in PMCH, Superintendent of PMCH Amarkant Jha Azad said. There were emotional scenes as children, their limbs dangling and heads drooping to one side, were brought to a hospital.
The tragedy took place at the government primary school in Dahrmasati Gandawan village at Mashrakh block, about 25 km from Chhapra and 60 km from Patna yesterday.
Police said that during the violent protests three police vehicles were damaged by agitators during a bandh call in Saran district over the deaths.
Three police vehicles and one belonging to the circle officer were damaged in Mashrakh block, where the school is located, Saran Superintendent of Police Sujit Kumar said.
In the district headquarters at Chapra, the protesters targeted a police bus used for carrying prisoners and broke its glasses. They also damaged one police checkpost, official sources said.
The day-long Saran bandh call has been given separately by three parties - RJD, BJP and LJP. Doctors said the ailing children were admitted to ICU of the paediatric department and senior doctors were attending to them round-the-clock.
One girl Kanti Kumari, a student of class IV and admitted at paediaric ward of PMCH, recalled that when the students did not take much food complaining bad taste yesterday, the school principal allegedly rebuked them and asked them to finish the meal.
"As we felt pain in stomach the head mistress asked us to go home and I fell unconscious on way back," she said.
The woman cook Manju Devi, who is also being treated at PMCH, said the materials for cooking meal was provided to her by the husband of the principal.
Describing the incident as "tragic", RJD supremo LaluPrasad blamed Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for the deaths of innocents.
The RJD chief told reporters at PMCH that despite regular complaints about midday meal scheme in different parts of the state the Nitish Kumar government initiated no action.
"Nitish Kumar is busy saving his chair and fighting with its earstwhile NDA partner BJP and has left masses on mercy of god," Prasad said.
In the Madhubani incident, around 50 students complained of stomach ache and began vomitting after eating the middaymeal and were then rushed to Bisfi health centre, according to the medical officer in-charge A K Prabhat.
"All the students are out of danger," he said. Except for seven children, rest of them have been discharged from the health centre, he said, adding seven students, five of them girls, are being administered saline water.
Amid the political blame game, JD(U) leader KC Tyagi alleged there is a "big conspiracy" to destabilise the Bihar government.