NEW DELHI -- Nine days after she disappeared, the principal of a school in eastern India where 23 children died after eating a lunch tainted with pesticide was arrested Wednesday by the police.
The principal, Meena Kumari, had been on her way to surrender before a judge in Chapra when she was detained by the police, the district police chief, Sujeet Kumar, said in a telephone interview.
Ms. Kumari was among the most wanted people in India after she fled her school in the village of Dharmasati Gandawa in Bihar's Saran district when the children in her school started vomiting soon after eating a free lunch. Forensic tests have confirmed that the cooking oil used to prepare the meal of rice, beans, potato curry and soy balls was contaminated with pesticide. Ms. Kumari bought the cooking oil from a store owned by her husband, who might have stored the cooking oil in a container once filled with pesticide, the police said.
Since the only other adult at the school was the school's cook, who also fell deathly ill, Ms. Kumari's departure meant that the ailing children were left to fend for themselves, according to villagers and state officials. Some staggered home to die in the arms of their parents.
The children complained that the meal tasted odd, but Ms. Kumari insisted that it was fine, officials said.
In the days after, television journalists picked through parts of Ms. Kumari's empty house, showing rooms filled with old bicycles and other items. Some parents buried their children in front of the school as a way of protesting the deaths.
School lunch programs became universal in India after a 2001 order by the country's Supreme Court, and free meals are now served to 120 million children -- by far the largest such program in the world. The program has been credited with improving school attendance. With some surveys suggesting that nearly half of Indian children suffer some form of malnutrition, it also serves a vital health purpose.
But like many government programs in India, it is underfinanced and plagued by corruption and mismanagement. Cases of tainted food are fairly routine, and in the days after the Bihar case Indian media reported other instances of children sickened by school lunches.
School facilities in India are often poor and many lack kitchens and dining areas. Lunches are sometimes prepared outside with dirty water and amid trash and animals. In other places, well-organized charities prepare nutritious and tasty meals in centralized kitchens under strict conditions.
The Bihar poisoning case has reverberated politically. Nitish Kumar, Bihar's chief minister, has been widely criticized for failing to visit the parents of the dead children and sharing their grief. Mr. Kumar was widely regarded for helping to spur growth and development in Bihar, long one of India's poorest and most chaotic states. But he recently undertook an acrimonious split with his longtime ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, after he criticized that party's rising leader, Narendra Modi.
Speculation has been rampant that Mr. Kumar might join the governing United Progressive Alliance ahead of next year's national elections. A recent poll showed that Mr. Kumar remains popular in Bihar, but his handling of the school lunch case may tarnish his image. Mr. Kumar has suggested the poisoning may have been a conspiracy.
In a news conference Wednesday evening, Mr. Kumar again insisted, "This is not a simple case of accidental poisoning."
He did not say more about the cause of the poisoning. "The police are investigating the case," he said. "They have arrested the key accused. It is a matter of further investigation."
Mr. Kumar promised to help those harmed.
"We can't bring back the dead children," he said, "but we will do whatever we can for the development of the village and to help the families."
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.