PATNA, India (Reuters) - The Indian government announced on Thursday it would set up an inquiry into the quality of food given to school pupils in a nationwide free meal scheme after at least 23 children died in one of the deadliest outbreaks of mass poisoning in years.
Within minutes of eating a meal of rice and potato curry in the eastern state of Bihar on Tuesday, the children began to fall sick, a cook at the school at the centre of the outbreak told Reuters from her hospital bed.
The children, aged four to 12, died after vomiting and convulsing from agonizing stomach cramps, officials and relatives said. Death came so quickly for some that they died in their parents' arms while being taken to hospital.
Dozens of other children are being treated for food poisoning. A local official said 25 children had died, but the toll could not be confirmed.
Police were searching on Thursday for the headmistress of the school in Gandaman village in Bihar, one of India's most impoverished states, who has disappeared. The school provided free meals under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the world's largest school feeding program involving 120 million children.
Police said it was not possible to conclusively say what caused the poisoning, but the focus of the investigation was on the oil used in the preparation of the meal.
Doctors treating the children said they suspected the food had been contaminated with insecticide. Media reports said the cooking oil may have been stored in an old pesticide container.
"The minute the children were brought in, we smelled this foul odor of organophosphorous," said Dr. Vinod Mishra, a doctor in the medical team treating many of the children at Patna Medical College Hospital in Bihar's capital, Patna.
"It seemed as though it was coming out of their pores. That's when we prepared the diagnosis for organophosphorous poisoning and it worked. The diagnosis has shown results," he said.
Organophosphorus compounds are used as pesticides.
"We have made no arrests so far as we are waiting for forensic reports which will help us piece together the entire investigation," said Sujit Kumar, superintendent of police in Saran district, where Gandaman village is located.
"We have circumstantial evidence but the key to the investigation is the headmistress who is absconding," he said, adding that police were trying to find her.
Federal education minister M.M. Pallam Raju vowed that "action will be taken" against those responsible but did not single out anyone by name. He gave no details of the committee he was setting up to investigate food quality in the mid-day meal scheme.
The announcement may be met with some skepticism as the government often sets up committees to investigate issues. These often take years to produce reports, which rarely lead to any changes in policy.
With her mother sitting beside her, one of the school's cooks, Manju Devi, lay in bed in a dimly lit ward of the Patna hospital, almost too weak to talk.
Speaking in a local Bihari dialect, she told Reuters that she had almost immediately fallen ill, along with the children, after eating the lunch.
When asked if she had prepared it, her mother quickly intervened, saying, "No! She had nothing to do with the meal that day, another cook had made the deal that day. She wasn't a part of it."
Also in the ward were 17 of the children being treated for food poisoning. They lay listlessly on their beds, each with a saline drip. They included three of Devi's children.
Nurses were administering injections while parents fanned their children with wooden handheld fans. Hospital workers distributed fruits, a loaf of bread and milk to each child.
Raju, the federal minister, said Bihar authorities had been warned that the quality of the food being served in schools was "unsatisfactory" in 12 districts and that Saran district, where Gandaman is located, was one of them.
There was no immediate comment from Bihar government officials.
A panel set up by the Indian government to monitor the food scheme in Bihar said in April that parents were not happy with the quality of the food, which was often cooked and kept in unhygienic conditions.
Although there have been widespread complaints of food quality in the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, there have been few reported cases of serious food poisoning.
In 1998, adulterated rapeseed oil killed as many as 60 people in the capital New Delhi. Investigations later revealed that the oil had been mixed with white oil, a petroleum product, according to B.V. Mehta, the chief of India's leading cooking oil industry body.
On Wednesday, demonstrators angered by the deaths pelted a police station with stones, set ablaze buses and other vehicles, chanted slogans denouncing the state government and burned effigies of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
There were no reports of further rioting on Thursday.
In the Patna hospital, doctors said most of the ill children were off the critical list.
"I won't send them back to that school," said a mother of three children who fell sick, one of whom died.
"I've already lost one child, I can't afford to lose the other two," she told Reuters.
Writing by Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj, Manoj Kumar, Jo Winterbottom, Sruthi Gottipati, Malini Menon and Anurag Kotoky in New Delhi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan