Police in India’s eastern Bihar province announced the arrest today, eight days after the July 16 poisoning. The children were eating the meals as part of a government sponsored free lunch program, which provides free meals to more than 120 million children across the country. The program was started to encourage families, particularly those living in the country’s wide swaths of poverty in rural areas, to send their children to school.
Immediately after eating the lunches, which consisted of rice, beans and potato curry, dozens of children fell violently ill with symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting. Within hours, 23 were dead and dozens more had been rushed to a hospital. Autopsy reports showed insecticide had been placed inside food. All of the dead children were between the ages of 5 and 12.
Shortly after the incident, the school’s principal, Meena Kumari, went into hiding. One of the school’s cooks, who was also rushed to hospital after eating the contaminated meal, told reporters she had warned Kumari the food may have become contaminated, but that Kumari ordered her to continue cooking it anyway.
Today police announced an arrest warrant for Kumari, posting a notice on the door to her home that her property would be confiscated. Kumari turned herself in shortly thereafter. Her application for bail has already been denied.
The state’s education minister alleged last week that Kumari had purchased the ingredients from a grocery store owned by Kumari’s husband, a member of a local opposition party. It’s unclear whether the children were deliberately poisoned to destabilize the local government. Kumari’s husband remains at large.
The poisoning set off a wave of isolated protests. Corruption and patronage are common within India’s government sponsored free lunch program, but the incident set off a wave of panic at nearby schools amid fears the children were intentionally poisoned. Teachers elsewhere in Bihar have reportedly announced they will boycott the free lunches, while a new government policy demands that all principals and cooks taste the food themselves, before serving it to their students.