Delhi: The principal of the village school in Bihar where 23 children died eating poisoned lunches reportedly ignored warnings from the school cook that the food was contaminated, and scolded children who complained it tasted bitter.
The principal of the school at Gandaman village, Meena Devi, fled when the children fell ill after eating the ''Midday Meal'', a government-provided lunch for poor children.
She and her husband, Arjun Rai, whose shop provided the food, have not been seen since.
Twenty-three children died and 24 are in hospital, with the cook, after eating food believed to be contaminated with organophosphate pesticides.
Police superintendent Sujeet Kumar said the cook told the principal the mustard oil she was using had begun to smell foul as she was cooking. She warned it might have been contaminated.
''The headmistress said 'Continue cooking and serve the food to the children.' There is certainly negligence on the part of the headmistress, whether criminal by design or carelessness, which is under investigation,'' he said.
Eleven-year-old Pinki Kumari, who was taken to hospital but survived the poisoning, said: ''When I complained that it's bitter I was scolded and told 'You people always complain, we'll serve what the government gives us.'''
The Midday Meal Scheme is the largest school lunch program in the world. It feeds more than 120 million children a day and is aimed at curbing India's rampant child malnutrition - currently at about 42 per cent - and encouraging poor families to send their children to school.
The scheme is regarded as one of India's most successful food subsidy programs, but it is still riven by problems.
Only two months ago, India's Ministry of Human Resource Development warned the Bihar government, in two separate reports, that food in its schools was being prepared unhygienically and left in the open.
''We had alerted the Bihar government quite a few months back about shortcomings in its food storage. We had expected that the Bihar government would have acted on the recommendations,'' Minister Pallam Raju said.
The deaths have provoked outrage across India, as well as violent protests in Bihar.
Several parents have buried their children on the school grounds. ''We decided to bury our children in front of the school building to remind the government that they died because of their negligence,'' said Madav Ram, whose 12-year-old son Rahul died.