Life term for school founder

Published : Aug 06, 2014 12:30 IST

On the 10th anniversary of the fire that claimed 94 lives in a Kumbakonam school, parents pay homage.

On the 10th anniversary of the fire that claimed 94 lives in a Kumbakonam school, parents pay homage.

ENDING the decade-long agonising wait for the parents and kin of the 94 children who were charred to death and 18 students who were seriously injured in the fire at a private school in Kumbakonam, Thanjavur district, on July 16, 2004, the Principal District and Sessions Court, Thanjavur, on July 30, convicted 10 of the 21 accused, including the school founder and four employees in the Education Department.

Pronouncing the judgment in an emotionally surcharged atmosphere, the Principal District and Sessions Judge Mohamed Ali awarded the life term to the founder of the Sri Krishna Middle School, ‘Pulavar’ R. Palanisamy, and also imposed a fine of Rs.51,65,700 on him. Palanisamy, the main accused, was found guilty under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Section 467 (forgery of valuable security, will, etc) read with Section 197 (issuing or signing false certificate), Section 304-part 2 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) on 94 counts, Section 337 (causing hurt by act of endangering life or personal safety) and Section 338 (causing grievous hurt).

Eight other accused, including Palanisamy’s wife and the correspondent of the school, Saraswathy; his adopted daughter and headmistress, J. Santhalakshmi; four government employees in the School Education Department, R. Balaji, S. Sivaprakasam, T. Thandavan and G. Durairaj; the noon meal organiser R. Vijayalakshmi; and the cook R. Vasanthi, were sentenced to five years’ rigorous imprisonment. A total fine of Rs.3.75 lakh was imposed on them.

The court awarded two years’ rigorous imprisonment to B. Jayachandran, the chartered engineer who certified the stability of the school building, and also fined him Rs.50,000. The remaining 11 accused—six Education Department officials, three teachers of the school and two officers of Kumbakonam municipality—were acquitted.

Though originally 24 accused were charge-sheeted, the cases against the then Chief Educational Officer, M. Palanisamy; Tahsildar S. Paramasivam; and Director of Elementary Education R. Kannan were withdrawn by the State government on July 30, 2010.

The court directed that the total fine amount of Rs.52.57 lakh be disbursed to the families of the 94 victims at the rate of Rs.50,000 to the family of each victim, Rs.25,000 each to the 15 children who sustained grievous injuries and Rs.10,000 each to the three students who suffered simple injuries. It also asked the government to consider providing financial assistance to the 18 injured students taking their sufferings and pursuit of education into account.

All the children who lost their lives or suffered injuries were among the 782 students of three schools situated in the same premises: Sri Krishna Girls High School, an aided Tamil medium school; Sri Krishna Middle School, with a Tamil-medium aided section and an English-medium unaided section; and Saraswathy Nursery & Primary School. The fire broke out in the building’s noon-meal kitchen and spread to the thatched roof of the first floor room that housed the classrooms of the aided primary school. The high casualty figure was the result of “herding” of children to the aided primary school with the “ulterior purpose of boosting the attendance” for getting government grant, as pointed out by the government-appointed Sampath Commission of Inquiry.

The Commission submitted its report in July 2005 and the government tabled the report in the State Assembly in September 2006 (“Flames of greed”, Frontline, October 20, 2006). The report stated that the fire broke out in the noon-meal kitchen, a thatched structure in the school complex, around 10.40 a.m. and spread to the thatched roof over the classrooms on the first floor.

The management, facing an inspection from the Education Department, made children from the high school and nursery school sit in the classrooms of the aided school on the first floor to show higher numbers in the primary school with a view to getting a higher quantum of government assistance.

When the fire spread, the students were trapped in their partitioned classrooms in a hall that had only one exit, which had been closed (“Tragedy at school”, August 13, 2004). Absence of water and firefighting equipment and the lack of training for teachers in disaster management worsened the situation.

“Carelessness” of the noon-meal staff, “callous indifference” and “criminal insensitivity” on the part of the management and “failure” of the authorities concerned to enforce the laws and safety standards had resulted in the accident, the Sampath Commission said in its report.

The verdict evoked mixed reactions. While the prosecution expressed satisfaction, the kin of the victims insisted that the government should appeal in the High Court so that “none of the accused was let off the hook”. Most of the parents who had lost their children were daily-wage earners, manual workers, flower sellers, vegetable vendors, drivers and welders.

P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System, criticised the acquittal of 11 accused persons. “The verdict would only embolden officials to go scot-free even after committing irregularities,” he said.

The judgment came after a protracted legal battle. Special Public Prosecutor R. Madhusudhanan recalled that the charge sheet, running to more than 5,000 pages, was submitted to the judicial magistrate court in July 2005. Then it was committed to the District and Sessions Court. Subsequently it was shifted to a fast-track court and an essential commodities court. Lack of progress in the case resulted in the re-transfer of the case to the District and Sessions Court in 2009 when the government appointed the SPP.

The process was delayed further as all the accused moved the district court seeking discharge. Barring the petitions filed by three government officials, all the other discharge petitions were dismissed by the court on July 30, 2010. The order was upheld by the Madurai Bench of the High Court on July 13, 2012.

As one of the accused, K. Balakrishnan, moved the Supreme Court seeking to discharge himself from the case, the apex court, on August 3, 2012, directed the Principal Sessions Judge, Thanjavur, to dispose of the case preferably within a period of six months. The trial started on September 24, 2012, and was conducted on a day-to-day basis.

The SSP said only after studying the judgment the prosecution would be able to come to a conclusion if it was a fit case for appeal against the acquittals.

S. Dorairaj

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