Indian Headmistress Charged With Murder Over School Lunch Tragedy

Husband also faces murder charges in case that saw deaths of 23 children after contaminated food was served

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Indian schoolchildren recovering from food poisoning receive medical treatment at the Patna Medical College and Hospital in Patna on July 20, 2013

The Indian police on Monday formally charged a school headmistress and her husband with murder over the Bihar Mid Day Meal tragedy. The trial is set to begin at the end of this week.

In July, twenty-three school children between the ages 4 and 12 in the eastern Indian state of Bihar died after eating a pesticide-contaminated school lunch.

According to the charge sheet, headmistress Meena Devi ignored complaints from the cook and the children that the food smelled and tasted foul.

After the tragedy, a forensic investigation revealed the presence of monocrotophos, a highly toxic pesticide in the school’s utensils. Authorities say that Devi’s husband Arjun Rai bought the pesticide and stored it along with the lunch provisions, contaminating them.

The incident has raised further concerns over India’s Mid Day Meal program — the world’s largest free school lunch program, reaching around 120 million children daily. The scheme has long been dogged by allegations of corrupt practices such as price fixing, the sale of provisions earmarked for schools in the open market and the provision of substandard food.

“The whole program is flawed,” Prashant Kumar Shahi, Bihar’s education minister told TIME in July. “One person’s carelessness can create a huge catastrophe in such a huge program. It is impossible to guarantee one hundred percent hygiene and quality in its present form.”

Since the Bihar tragedy, New Delhi has been training school cooks in safe practices. In August, the Akshaya Patra Foundation, a Bangalore-based nonprofit, and New Delhi’s largest nongovernmental partner in the program, trained over a hundred such cooks and their helpers from three districts in Bihar.

“Most of the women had no idea that they were entrusted with a very important job, it was imperative to make them understand the importance of the program,” Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice chairman of Akshaya Patra Foundation, told TIME. “It’s a very proactive measure but the training has to be sustained over months and years.”

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