Twenty-one children have died after eating a free lunch feared to contain poisonous chemicals at a school in eastern India, officials said Wednesday, sparking angry protests as mobs ran riot.
Another 30 children remained ill in hospital after consuming the meal of lentils, vegetables and rice cooked at a village primary school in the dirt-poor state of Bihar on Tuesday.
"The death toll has risen to 21," local government official Amarjeet Sinha told reporters, as suspicion focussed on the possible presence of insecticide in the food.
There were emotional scenes as children, their limbs dangling and heads lolling to one side, were brought to a hospital in the Bihar city of Chhapra.
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 education minister P.K. Shahi said the midday meal "appears to be poisonous".
The children, all aged under 10, were buried near the school in the village of Masrakh on Wednesday morning as angry residents armed with poles and sticks took to the streets of Chhapra.
The mob smashed windows of police buses and other vehicles and turned over a police booth in Chhapra, the main city of Saran district where the school is located.
"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 S.K. Mall.
A preliminary investigation has shown the meal may have contained traces of phosphate from insecticide in the vegetables, Sinha from the local government 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.
Free lunches are offered to poorer students in state-run schools as part of government welfare measures in many of India's 29 states.
Educators see the midday meal scheme as a way to increase school attendance. 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.