ISLAMABAD – Indian authorities on Wednesday were trying to determine how food served as part of a free school lunch program got tainted with insecticide, leading to the deaths of at least 22 children and the hospitalization of more than two dozen others.

The children, who were between the ages of 5 and 12, attended a school in Patna, a small village in the eastern state of Bihar. After eating a lunch of potatoes, soybeans, rice and lentils Tuesday, they began complaining of severe stomach pain and were vomiting, authorities said.

Authorities told Indian media that preliminary laboratory tests showed the food contained an organophosphate used as an insecticide. But they were still trying to find out what part of the meal was contaminated, and whether the poisonings were due to improper washing of ingredients.

More than 30 of the children remained hospitalized Wednesday, several of them in serious condition.

The lunches were part of a longstanding government-funded program to provide meals to 120 million poor schoolchildren across the country. Now one of the world’s largest school nutrition efforts, the program began in the 1980s in western India and was implemented in the rest of the country in 1995. Its primary aim is to combat widespread malnutrition that afflicts nearly half of India’s children.

State Education Minister P.K. Sahi told local media that grain ingredients used in the lunches may not have been washed beforehand, which might have led to the poisonings. However, according to some parents interviewed, only children who ate potatoes and soybeans became ill. The meal was cooked in the school kitchen. Authorities lodged a case of criminal negligence against the school’s principal.

The poisonings prompted violent protests in Gandamal, the village where the school is located. Angry demonstrators forced the shutdown of local shops and businesses and set several vehicles ablaze.


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