Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The fire in a school in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, in which 93 children died, raises serious questions about the state of basic education, including safety in schools.

in Kumbakonam

JULY 16, 10 a.m. Classes are on as usual at the Sri Krishna High School in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. In the school kitchen preparations are on to cook the mass noon meal - rice, sambar, a side dish and a boiled egg per child. A small fire in one corner of the kitchen did not seem to worry those present as they got down to the task of dousing the flames. Surya, a Class VII student who inquired about the smoke and smell, was told that the fire was being put out. But a strong wind, normal in the month of Aadi (July-August) in the State, seemed to breathe new life into the flames as they leapt to catch the thatched roof. Some 40 minutes had passed when the people fighting the blaze realised that the situation was going out of control.

Surya was asked to run away by her teacher, but no one seemed to spare a thought for the 193 primary schoolchildren who were locked inside the long room, partitioned for the five classrooms, on the first floor even as the flames leapt to its thatched roof. Soon smoke filled the rooms and the children ran to the door screaming for help. There was no other escape route as the flames spread. And then the burning thatch fell. Seventy-five children were burnt alive. Of the 30 who suffered severe burns, 18 died in hospital.

Sandwiched between two residential buildings, the school, which is just 40 feet (12 metres) wide and 120 feet (36 m) long, had a total strength of 740 students and was a virtual death trap. The only entrance, and exit, was a narrow door, which was closed during working hours, even when a fire burned in the kitchen on the ground floor. It is said that a fire broke out in the same kitchen some years ago but it was put out before it caused much damage. "They thought they would be able to put out this fire too, but the story turned out to be different," said a senior resident of Kumbakonam.

No lessons were learnt from the first accident. It is said that once when Education Department officials refused permission to run the school, the management went to court and got the permission.

The school, as it turns out now, had violated several rules and regulations governing the building and safety. The entrance and the exit to the three-storey, partly thatched building on Kasiraman street was a narrow door that led to a narrower stairway. The school was started in 1950 as a Tamil-medium aided school, but in the 1990s two more schools were started in the same building, against the rules. At the time of the tragedy three schools were operating from the same building - the Sri Krishna Girls High School, an aided Tamil-medium school; the Sri Krishna Middle School, with a Tamil-medium aided section and an English-medium unaided one; and the unrecognised Saraswati Vidyalaya, with classes from LKG to Standard V.

On the day of the tragedy, an Additional Education Officer was to inspect the Tamil section. And, as is the normal practice of the school - to inflate the number of students in the Tamil section during inspections in order to secure a higher grant from the government - students from the English-medium section on the ground floor were sent to the Tamil-medium section on the first floor.

Seventeen persons have been arrested in connection with the fire. Among them five belong to the school, including the correspondent, Pulavar Palanisamy, and the staff of the noon-meal scheme. The others who have been arrested are: Muthu Palaniswamy, Chief Educational Officer; Naraynaswamy, District Educational Officer; P. Palaniswamy, District Elementary Education Officer; Madhavan, former Additional Education Officer; J. Radhakrishnan, Assistant Education Officer; Paramasivam, former Tahsildar; Jayachandran, an engineer from Salem; Balakrishnan, Assistant Education Officer; Balaji, Assistant Education officer; and Thandavam, superintendent, Sivaprakasam, office assistant and Durairaj, personal assistant - all three working at the District Elementary Education office. They were produced in court and remanded to custody.

This was small consolation for the parents. They were pained more by the attitude of the teachers. "Not one of them visited the children in hospital, be it on the day of the tragedy or subsequently," said a parent, who demanded that they be punished. The school had 24 teachers, all women except one, and by most accounts they failed to fulfil their responsibilities as role models.

The teachers apparently told the police that they saved the rest of the children who were in the pucca building and that they had to flee as the people were agitated and they feared that they would be assaulted. Only 13 teachers were present in the school on July 16, the others having gone on leave apparently to visit temples on the auspicious occasion of Aadi Velli (Aadi Friday). There were three teachers in the primary section, and one account has it that they came down after locking the only door to the section, to help put out the fire. Another version has it that the school authorities locked the door on the assumption that the children would be safe in the classrooms.

THE screams of the children and the sound of nails and bamboo bursting in the blaze alerted the local people, who launched a rescue operation. Rajendran, who has a welding shop near the school, climbed on to the first floor of the school building from the adjoining Ganesha temple and broke the concrete grills on the wall and pulled out a few children. "But when I came down I found that I had not been able to save my daughter Divya, studying in the third standard," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Eight fire tenders arrived from Kumbakonam, Thiruvaiyaru, Thiruvidaimaruthur, Papanasam, Thanjavur, Nannilam and Needamangalam and put out the fire in about an hour. The firemen broke the concrete grills to save the children. A ladder-lorry of the Kumbakonam municipality was also used to rescue the children.

V. Murugan, Revenue Divisional Commissioner of Kumbakonam, was soon on the scene and joined the rescue operation along with revenue officials. "I have not seen such a gory scene in my life. We immediately arranged for ambulances and vehicles to carry the injured to hospital," he said. District Collector J. Radhakrishnan was quickly on the spot, cutting short a grievances day meeting of farmers in Thanjavur and running the last 200 metres to the school through the crowd gathered there. Realising the gravity of the situation, he asked his officials to procure white cloth from wherever it was available to cover the bodies.

In the Kumbakonam Government Hospital, a large hall was got ready to keep the bodies and help parents identify their children. Plantain leaves were procured, on which to place the injured children, as were air-conditioners. It was an effort in crisis management that earned praise for the Collector and all the officials concerned (see box).

But not even their best efforts could save all the injured children. The toll rose to 80 by evening and another 10 died the next day. Four of the injured were shifted to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital, one to the Raja Mirasudhar Hospital in Thanjavur, two to the Apollo Hospital in Chennai and one to the Apollo Hospital in Madurai. Twelve children remained at the Kumbakonam Government Hospital and were treated by plastic surgeons headed by V. Jayaraman from the Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai, besides doctors of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Pondicherry and the Christian Medical College in Vellore. By July 22 the toll rose to 93.

The Kumbakonam Government Hospital had virtually turned into a morgue and parents, shocked and in tears, came looking for their children, hoping not to find them there. Their emotions burst forth when they spotted their dear one. Identifying the charred bodies proved a harrowing experience and in many cases bodies were identified by the polish on the nails. The extent of the tragedy left many of the mothers mental wrecks and they required professional counselling to come to grips with the situation. "Mothers of seven children who died are in a very bad state and need continuous counselling," said M. Sarala, a social worker who counselled them.

Some parents who had two children studying in the school lost both, some their only child and some others one of their two children.

Natham village near Kumbakonam lost 13 children. Their bodies, each in a thuli (cradle made of cloth tied to a bamboo pole), were carried to the burial ground near the village on July 17 for a mass burial. On the directions of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the village will now have a school under the Education Guarantee Programme.

On the evening of the incident the Chief Minister saw for herself the burnt-down school and visited the injured children in hospital. She held the management of the school and the officials of the Education Department responsible for the fire and ordered criminal action against the management. She cited several instances of violation of rules, including the use of thatched roofs for the kitchen and the classrooms and the presence of such a kitchen close to the classrooms. A single narrow staircase leading up to the first floor from the only entrance to the school was another factor that she pointed out as a reason for the tragedy. She announced a solatium of Rs.1 lakh to the parents of the dead children, Rs.25,000 to the severely injured children, and Rs.10,000 to those with minor injuries. She also cancelled the permission given to the school and ordered its closure.

The van run by the Sri Krishna High School was a big attraction for families living in villages such as Natham and a reason why they sent their children to the private school in Kumbakonam, 4 km away from Natham. Most of the earning members of the village are drivers, vegetable vendors, welders or daily-wage workers, and the van fee of Rs.30 a month was affordable. The school was also liberal when it came to collecting the fees - it would wait for up to a year. And it did not collect donations, said some parents.

Anthonidoss, a loadman from Sandanalpura Karuppur, lost both his sons - Aravind, who was in the fifth standard, and Aniskumar, who was in the third - in the mishap. Inbaraj too lost his two sons, Ananthan and Praveenraj. Palaniammal lost both her daughters, Sonia and Priyanka, named after Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka because of her admiration for the Indira Gandhi family.

Ramakrishnan, a vegetable vendor of Natham village, lost his daughter Aishwarya, who was in the third standard. She was one of five girls. "We never bothered that we have five daughters. We brought them up cheerfully," said Selvi, their mother. One of her daughters, Seetha, a ninth standard student of the school, said so many children died because the classrooms in the first floor were locked.

The reasons for the tragedy will have to wait for the report of the State government-appointed commission of inquiry headed by K. Sampath, a retired Judge of the Madras High Court. Meanwhile, the government has arranged for free admission of the students of Sri Krishna High School in other schools in the town. It will also supply them uniforms and books free.

The situation in Kumbakonam was still to return to normal a week after the incident. People from all walks of life take out processions condoling the deaths and place wreaths in front of the school. Posters in Tamil have come up all over the town on the tragedy and expressing anger against schools that do not follow the norms. "At Kumbakonam parents became orphans," reads one. "School, here we give death certificates," said another.

On July 23 another fire broke out in the school, this time on the second floor. Alert neighbours informed the fire service, who put it out. The fire seemingly emanated from an almirah in which books were kept and it led to speculation that this was an act of sabotage meant to destroy records.

However, officials maintained that important records had been taken away from the school after the fire and that only some books were burnt. Following this incident, the Collector appealed to people not to take out processions and place wreaths or light lamps in front of the school.

Parents who lost their children have demanded that the school be converted into a memorial so that they can pay homage to their dear ones on July 16 every year. A memorial for their dreams.

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