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India school poisonings: Principal arrested on murder charge

IndiaPoliticsNational GovernmentElizabeth II

NEW DELHI – The principal at an Indian primary school where 23 children died last week after eating free lunches contaminated with pesticide was arrested Wednesday on murder and criminal conspiracy charges after eight days on the run.

Principal Meena Devi, 35, was caught in the same city of Chhapra where the tragedy occurred in India’s impoverished northern Bihar state.

On July 16, some 50 children -- most under 10 years old -- attending Dharmasati Gandaman Primary School complained of feeling sick after eating their lunch, which was provided under a free national government program that feeds an estimated 120 million children.

By the evening, 20 had died and several others were in the hospital, many in critical condition. Over the next few days, distraught parents cremated their children a few hundred yards from the school amid calls for Meena Devi’s arrest.

A total of 24 children along with Manju Devi, the woman who cooked the soybeans, vegetables and rice, remain in the hospital. The cook is not related to Meena Devi.

Abhijit Sinha, the district magistrate in Chhapra, said Meena Devi didn’t turn herself in voluntarily, as some local media reports suggested. He said police had staked out various locations since an arrest warrant was issued Monday, finally catching up with her Wednesday morning after a tip.

“She is now being interrogated in the Chhapra police station and will appear before a magistrate tomorrow,” the magistrate said late Wednesday. “Medical teams have been dispatched to help the grieving parents.”

Bihar state minister P.K. Shahi alleged last week that groceries and other supplies used in preparing the meal were purchased from a store run by Meena Devi’s husband, who also fled and is still missing, although he hasn’t been charged.

Police raided their house twice in the last three days and reportedly recovered a bottle of pesticide. A notice affixed to the building’s exterior listed Meena Devi as a declared offender and said the property would be seized if she didn’t surrender to police.

An investigation is underway, but a forensic report released Saturday found pesticide in cooking oil samples taken from a recovered container, on a platter, in utensils and in food served that day. Police said samples taken of the insecticide, Organophosphorus, were highly concentrated.

Shahi alleged that several children complained the food tasted bad but that Meena Devi insisted they eat it. Other reports said the cook also complained but her concerns were brushed aside.

The incident has led to extensive soul-searching and complaints about corruption and mismanagement in Indian welfare programs.

“There are broader lessons here,” said Jayati Ghosh, a professor in the School of Social Sciences at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “With school meals, there needs to be much greater monitoring and oversight.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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