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Representational imageReuters

The free mid-day meals at a school near Chhapra, Bihar, proved fatal for 20 children on Wednesday. Most of those who died, allegedly due to food poisoning, were aged below 10 years.

Another 40 children who were provided the meals fell seriously ill and were admitted to the Patna Medical College Hospital. The incident took place at the government school in Dahrmasati Gandawan village in Saran district, around 25 km from Chhapra.

"Nearly 50 students got very sick after eating the mid-day meal at home. By the time they were taken to PSC Mashrak, two children died. By the time they came to us, seven more children had died. We're treating the children at the moment. Doctors found some foreign chemical matter present. The post-mortem of some of the children is complete. The doctors did their best to save the children, but there was so much poison in their food that the doctors couldn't save them all," Chhapra's District Magistrate Abhijeet Sinha told NDTV.

Civil surgeon Shambhunath Singh confirmed to The Hindu that the students died of "food poisoning and yellow phosphorous poisoning". Reports said that the poisoning may have been caused by the presence of pesticides or insecticides in the food. The meals consisted of rice, dal and soyabean.

Parents complained that dead lizards, frogs, insects have been found in the past in the mid-day meals.

Following the incident, hundreds gathered at the local police station demanding action against school authorities.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar expressed shock and ordered an immediate inquiry. He also announced a compensation of ₹2 lakh each to the families of the children who died.

Saran Commissioner and the DIG of Saran range will conduct the inquiry over the unfortunate incident.

The Opposition, including its former ally of 17 years Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has launched a scathing attack at the Nitish government over the tragedy. Many have blamed it on widespread corruption and ignorance to guidelines on food quality. 

"Such incidents did not happen even during Lalu Prasad's government. If the state government has any integrity, it will resign and go for elections to see if the people of Bihar have any faith in them at all," BJP leader Giriraj Singh told NDTV.

Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Ramvilas Paswan also slammed Nitish's governance and has demanded for his resignation saying these are "not death but murder".