NEW DELHI — Police on Wednesday arrested the principal of the school in eastern India where 23 children died last week after eating a free lunch that was contaminated with pesticides.
Meena Kumari had fled soon after the children fell ill on July 16 at their rural school in Bihar state. On Wednesday, members of a special investigative team detained her as she was going to a local court in the town of Chapra to file an application for bail in anticipation of an arrest.
Investigators have said that Kumari bought ingredients for the school lunch from her husband’s grocery store. Forensic analysts said the food contained pesticides. Kumari’s husband has not been arrested.
About 50 children, most of them ages 5 to 12, fell sick immediately after eating the lunch and were rushed to the local hospital, but the facility was not equipped to treat all of them, some state health officials said.
The school lunches were part of a nationwide midday-meal program that covers more than 120 million schoolchildren and was launched a decade ago to boost school attendance and nutrition levels. But cases of food poisoning and unhygienic school kitchen conditions are common in India.
Kumari “is in police custody, and they are questioning her,” Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, said at a news conference in Patna, the state capital. “All possible angles will be probed by investigators. After all, this huge tragedy is not merely due to a coincidence or mere negligence. The children had complained about the food, but in spite of their resistance, the food was served to them. The forensic report also says that there was a high concentration of pesticide. Whoever is guilty, whatever their motive is, will be brought to justice.”
State police had declared Kumari a “proclaimed offender” and posted a notice asking her to surrender, according to the Press Trust of India. She faces potential charges of murder and criminal conspiracy.
Kumar said the government will build a new high school, a health center and roads in Gandamal, where the children died, and establish a supply of safe drinking water.
“We cannot bring the children back, but we will do whatever is possible to help in terms of development schemes for the village,” he said.
More than 300,000 primary school teachers in Bihar have called for a boycott of the midday-meal program beginning Thursday, saying they should be engaged only in teaching activities and not be involved in helping run the program.