India principal charged with murder over 23 school meal deaths

PATNA (AFP) - Indian police charged a school principal and her husband with murder on Monday over the deaths of 23 children who were poisoned by a mid-day meal which was contaminated with pesticide.

The children, aged four to 12, fell ill within minutes of eating the lunch of lentils, potatoes and rice cooked at their primary school in a poverty-stricken village in eastern Bihar state on July 16.

The superintendent of police in Saran district, Varun Kumar Sinha, said by phone that headteacher Meena Devi and her husband Arjun Rai faced at least five charges including murder and attempt to murder.

Police believe the poisoning was done deliberately by the couple, who purchased pesticide two days ahead of the tragedy and then stored the lethal chemical in the same room as cooking items.

"Police have filed a chargesheet in the court and appealed to the court for the speedy trial in the case," Sinha said.

The case shone a light on the often unhygienic and dangerous preparation of food for free mid-day school meals, a government programme intended to combat chronic malnutrition among Indian children.