Nearly two dozen children have died in the Indian state of Bihar after receiving contaminated food in their school lunch. Laboratory reports indicate that the meal was tainted with a pesticide:

Authorities discovered a container of pesticide in the school’s cooking area next to the vegetable cooking oil and mustard oil, but it wasn’t yet known if that container was the source, according to Amarjeet Sinha, a top official in the state of Bihar, where the tragedy took place.

Some officials have said it appeared that the rice had somehow been tainted with pesticide and might not have been properly washed before it was cooked.

“It’s not a case of food poisoning. It’s a case of poison in food in a large quantity, going by the instant deaths,” Sinha said.

More answers were expected Friday, when a forensic laboratory was to issue the results of its tests on the dead children, the food and the uncooked grain stored by the principal in her house, he said. Police were searching for the principal, who fled after the students started falling sick, Sinha said.

The cooks, Manju Devi and Pano Devi, told The Associated Press that the principal controlled the food for the free daily lunch provided by the government at the school. On Tuesday morning, she gave them rice, potatoes, soy and other ingredients needed to prepare the meal and then went about her business. As the children ate, they started fainting, the cooks said. . .

The free midday meal was served to the children Tuesday in Gandamal village in Masrakh block, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Patna, the Bihar state capital.

Those who survived the poison were unlikely to suffer from any serious aftereffects from the tainted food, said Patna Medical College hospital superintendent Amarkant Jha Amar.

“There will be no remnant effects on them. The effects of poisoning will be washed after a certain period of time from the tissues,” Amar said.

Amar said Thursday that the post-mortem reports on the children who died confirmed that insecticide was either in the food or cooking oil. He said authorities were waiting for lab results for more details on the chemicals.

Associated Press

Indians responded to the news with protests:

Angry protesters are demanding answers in eastern India after at least 22 children died from apparent food poisoning after eating a school meal.

Many in the country have interpreted the poisoning as symptomatic of India’s broader problems:

The story seemed to confirm widely held criticisms of Indian government officials as overly focused on the country’s middle-class and rich while under-serving the hundreds of millions of Indians living below the poverty line. The incident is, for them, about much more than just accidental food poisoning, but a reminder of the degree to which many Indians have been left behind in the country’s development. . .

Based on the social media response, many Indians seem to see the school lunch deaths as not just a problem with the meal program but with Indian governance more broadly, with the government’s priorities and its competency. Whether or not this incident is directly connected to larger governance issues in India, it is adding further fuel to popular anger against the state and demands for change.

Max Fisher

Elsewhere in India, government forces shot and killed four Muslim villagers in Kashmir Thursday. They were protesting what they claimed was the desecration of the Koran by border guards.