PATNA: As many as 22 children have died after eating a free lunch, feared to contain poisonous chemicals, at an Indian primary school on Tuesday, sparking angry street protests.
Another 30 children are still in hospital after consuming the meal of lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village school in the poverty-stricken state of Bihar on Tuesday.
"After 21 deaths, we have just heard that one more child has died while undergoing treatment," the state's health secretary, Vyas Ji, told AFP on Wednesday, as suspicion focused on the possible presence of insecticide in the food.
Twenty of the children, aged between four and 10, were buried near the school in the village of Masrakh on Wednesday morning.
At a hospital in Chhapra, the main town of Saran district where the school is located, there were emotional scenes as children, their limbs dangling and heads lolling, were admitted.
Other children, lying listless on stretchers, were placed on intravenous drips amid chaotic scenes at the hospital. Outside, inconsolable relatives wept.
"My children had gone to school to study. They came back home crying, and said it hurts," one distraught father told the NDTV network.
"I took them into my arms, but they kept crying, saying their stomach hurt very badly."
Running to the school to find out what had happened, the father said he saw "many bodies of children lying on the ground".
Bihar state education minister PK Shahi said the midday meal "appears to be poisonous".
The cook also died after eating the food, local government official Amarjeet Sinha told AFP.
Her two children, who studied at the same school, are receiving treatment in hospital.
As the death toll continued to rise, angry residents armed with poles and sticks took to the streets of Chhapra.
The mob smashed windows of police buses and other vehicles and overturned a police booth.
"Hundreds of angry people staged a protest in Saran since late Tuesday night, demanding stern action against government officials responsible for this shocking incident," said district government official SK Mall.
A preliminary investigation has shown the meal may have contained traces of phosphate from insecticide in the vegetables, Sinha told AFP.
He said doctors were treating victims with atropine, which is effective against organophosphate poisoning.
Media reports quoted villagers as saying the use of contaminated, foul-smelling mustard oil for cooking at the school could also have caused the deaths.
"Investigators are examining midday meal samples and samples of victims' vomit. Only the final report of inquiry will reveal the real cause," Sinha said.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar announced compensation of 200,000 rupees ($3,373) for each of the bereaved families.
India runs the world's largest free school meal scheme, covering 120 million children. The Supreme Court ordered state governments in 2001 to provide free lunches to students in all state-run primary schools.
Educators see the midday meal scheme as a way to increase school attendance, in a country where almost half of all young children are undernourished.
But children often suffer from food poisoning due to poor hygiene in kitchens and occasionally sub-standard food.
More than 130 students were taken to hospital in the western city of Pune last year after eating lunch at school, the Times of India reported.
A probe revealed that the food was contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Food prices have soared in India over the past six years, causing increased hardship for the 455 million people estimated by the World Bank to live below the poverty line.
Ahead of elections next year, the government this month announced a subsidised food programme to offer grains to nearly 70 percent of the population, or 820 million people, at a small fraction of market prices.