2004 Kumbakonam School fire
|Date||16 July 2004|
|Verdict||1 (life term), 8 (five years jail), 1 (two years jail)|
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2004 Kumbakonam school fire accident happened in a school in Kumbakonam town in Thanjavur district in Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A total of 94 students of the primary section of the Krishna English Medium School were burnt to death in their classroom as the thatched roof caught fire on 16 July 2004.  The accident was the one of the four major fire accidents and the largest school accident in Tamil Nadu, and second in terms of casualties for fire incidents in schools in India.
A committee setup under retired Judge Sampath found out that the heavy casualty was the false tactics of the management to bring the other two school students to the aided primary school to mislead the inspecting authorities about the student-teacher ratio. The Chief Minister who visited the site, ordered the withdrawal of the recognition of the three schools, prosecution of the school authorities and the correspondent, suspension of the Chief Educational Officer, the District Elementary Educational Officer and the Assistant Elementary Educational Officer of Thanjavur school district. A compensation of ₹ one lakh was provided to the kins of the victims, ₹25,000 to the severely injured and ₹ 10,000 to other injured from the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund. The district administration arranged a primary school in Natham village and accommodated 46 students under the Educational Guarantee Scheme of the government.
The state government constructed a memorial park near Palakarai, the Cauvery bridge, in Kumbakonam, in memory of the lost lives and was opened on 6 June 2010. The government allotted housing plots to 59 homeless parents of the deceased 89.
The trial of the case started after a long delay on 24 September 2012 in the Thanjavur district sessions court. The case had 21 accused and had 488 witnesses that included 18 children affected in the accident. The headmaster Prabharan and three others turned approvers. Chargesheet was filed against 17 people, which included Pulavar Palanichamy, his wife and correspondent of school Saraswati, three teachers, six officers of the Education Department (elementary), the Kumbakonam municipal commissioner, town planning officer and four assistants of the education department. On July 30, 2014, Thanjavur district sessions court sentenced school founder Pulavar Palanichamy to life imprisonment and fined ₹ 51,65,700. Ten others including school staff and officials from the Kumbakonam municipality and education department of the state were sentenced to five year imprisonment. Eleven accused, including three teachers were released from the case.
There were three schools namely, Sri Krishna Aided Primary School, Saraswathy Nursery and Primary School and Sri Krishna Girls High School, operating in the same building in Kasiraman street in Kumbakonam in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The school was located amidst residential buildings, 15 m (49 ft) away from the main road. The school had a small gate 4 ft (1.2 m) wide, immediately beyond which the classrooms were located. The classrooms did not have any partition and at the end of the classrooms, there was a stage. On the northwest side of the stage was the noon meal kitchen and a cycle stand, both of which were thatched structures. The northern wing in the ground floor accommodated the Saraswathy Nursery and Primary School, which had six classes, one each for LKG, UKG, I, II, IV and V. There was another entrance to the school on the eastern side. The buildings in the nursery and primary schools had no ventilation. Near the eastern entrance, there was a narrow staircase 4.5 ft (1.4 m) wide leading to the first floor of the building. The layout of the first floor was similar to the ground floor where classes had no separation and exit was through a narrow collapsible door. The lower end of the class on the western side was connected to the noon meal kitchen thatched roof and the cycle stand roof, where the accident occurred. The Sri Krishna Girls High School had 179, Sri Krishna Aided Primary School had 477 and Saraswathy Nursery and Primary School had 126 student in its roles, totaling to 782 students. The second floor measured 62.5 ft (19.1 m) * 13 ft (4.0 m) and had classes for standards VI, VII, VIII and the IX of the girls high school. The third floor had an open terrace having a water tank.
On 16 July 2004, the fire tragedy occurred on thatched roof structure of the school. The school started at 9:15 a.m. and during one of the breaks at 10:30 a.m., one of the girls noticed the fire and alerted the teacher and the news spread to other classes. The fire sparked from the midday meal kitchen thatch and spread to the upper level, which also had thatched roofs and spread rapidly. The narrow staircase had sundry material, that prevented exit of children. The staircase was also located close to the kitchen. The kitchen did not have gas stoves and fire logs were used for cooking. The school was overcrowded, having 900 children in its rolls. The thatches and the supporting bamboo poles caught fire and fell on the children and also blocked the exit. The fire service was informed at 11 a.m. and the personnel arrived in a few minutes. But since they were unprepared for such a large scale fire, the rescue services were not effective. The locals also helped by breaking the concrete window. The injured children were admitted to the government hospital in Kumbakonam and some of them later got shifted to Thanjavur Medical College hospital. The deceased kids were taken for postmortem to the government hospital. By night, 76 children were reported killed in the accident and the district administration handed over the bodies to the parents. The Collector of the district arranged for temporary wards in the government hospital to ease the parents to identify their wards. The digging of graves went on till 2 a.m. with the help of additional diggers arranged by the district administration, by when 56 bodies were buried. On 16 July, additional doctors arrived from Kilpauk Medical College, JIPMER Medical College Hospital, C.M.C., Vellore, Salem and Coimbatore to treat the injured. The casualty increased to 90, 89 of whom were identified and handed over to the parents. Some of the injured kids, as requested by parents, were shifted to private hospitals in Kumbakonam, Madurai and Chennai. In total, there were 65 were still undergoing treatment on 16 July, 4 of whom died subsequently, making the total toll to 94.
The state government deputed a committee under Justice K. Sampath to inquire into the circumstances and causes leading to the fire accident on 20 July 2004. The committee assumed office on 1 August 2004 and was constituted with expert members Dr. Rani Kandhaswami (Former Principal, Lady Willington Institute of Advanced Studies in Education, Chennai), S.K. Saxena (Fire Officer, Madras Atomic Power Station, Kalpakkam), K. Vijayan (Clinical Psychologist, Institute of Mental Health, Chennai) and P.A. Annamalai (retired Head Master).
The committee was given a timeline of four months, but extended for four times and it was able to finally complete the investigation on 30 June 2005. The investigations found out that the school was not inspected by the educational official for three years. The fire officials reported that the building laws were not followed as the school had a thatched kitchen and classroom roof, had no emergency exits and it was a "death trap". The school had to follow minimum safety standards, the chapter IV on fire and safety of National Building Code of India 2005 and IS 14435:1997, the code of practice of fire safety in educational institutions. A public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court of India by Avinash Mehrotra quoting the accident and pleading protection of life and safety of school children across various schools in India.
The school teachers were not trained properly to handle the situation. The investigation revealed that the role of teachers was highly questionable. One view held that most of them found ways to escape themselves rather than saving the children as most of them came out unscathed. Some of the eyewitness by the kids revealed that the teachers asked them to remain in the classes. Another view held that the teachers tried their best to rescue the children and some of them asked the children to stay in the classes feeling it is the regular smoke from the kitchen.
The committee found out that the major reason for the heavy casualty was the false tactics of the management to bring the other two school students to the aided primary school to mislead the inspecting authorities about the student-teacher ratio. The management was held responsible for the whole accident. The report pointed out that the teachers were not trained in disaster management and the prohibited thatch structure was close to the classrooms. It also stated that the schools had inadequate exit facilities and had no firefighting capabilities. Pulavar Palanichamy, the owner of the schools, was reported to have used his political clout and coalesced with the municipal and the revenue department officials getting the permits for the schools. Vijayalakshmi, the noon meal organizer and also the teacher of the English Medium school, was held accountable for not performing her duties of taking safety precautions. Vasanthi, the head cook lighted the oven in the absence of her assistant, Sivasankari, who usually lights it. There was contrasting reports on whether Sivasankari was present in the school during the event. The Tahsildar of Kumbakonam Taluk, Paramasivam, was reported "dishonest" for granting licence under the Tamil Nadu Public Buildings (Licensing) Act, 1965 to the school. The chartered engineer Jayachandran was also held dishonest of giving stability certificate to the building without visiting the school once. The additional assistant educational officer, Madhavan for allowing the school to run without recognition for 6 years. Sivaprakasam, the assistant elementary education officer, was held accountable for allowing Madhavan, who was not competent to allow permit to the school. Balaji, the deputy education elementary officer was accused of carelessly passing the papers signed by Madhavan. The local health officer r Dr. Sivapunyam was accused of giving false sanitary certificate to the school. Annadurai, a friend of Pulavar Palanichamy was accounted for advising circumvention of rules. Pingapani, the deputy educational officer, who inspected the high school, did not show interest in learning that the same campus had a primary school acting beyond rules. The other officers who were earlier responsible for permitting the nursery school against the rules during 1999, namely, Shanmughavelu, Sethuramachandran, Chandrasekharan and Dr.Palanivelu. The Deputy elementary educational officer, Durairaj and assistant elementary educational officer, Balakrishnan, were held less culpable for knowing about the thatched structure and the exargerated attendance, but not initiating any action.
The accident was the one of the four major fire accident in the state following the Brihadeeswarar Temple fire on 7 June 1997, when 60 people were killed, Erwadi fire incident on 6 August 2001 that killed 30 mentally challenged people and fire at a marriage hall on 23 January 2005 at Srirangam where 30 people including the bridegroom were killed. The accident was the second in terms of casualties for fire incidents in schools after the one in 1995 in Dabwali, Mandi in Sirsa District of the Haryana State, where 400 people were killed in a school fire during a prize distribution ceremony of the DAV Public School. It was the largest school accident in Tamil Nadu, followed by a private school building collapse in a private school in Madurai during the 1950s that killed 35 girls and injured 137 others. The accident raised several questions on the Tamil Nadu Educational Department on the safety rule implementation, training of school teachers in civil defense and enforcement of rules imparting education.
The Chief Minister who visited the site ordered withdrawal of recognition of the three schools, prosecution on the school authorities and the correspondent, Suspension of the Chief Educational Officer, the District Elementary Educational Officer and the Assistant Elementary Educational Officer of Thanjur school district. A compensation of ₹ one lakh was provided to the kins of the victims, ₹25,000 to the severely injured and ₹ 10,000 to other injured from the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund. Counselling sessions were arranged to the children affected by the trauma and arrangements were made to facilitate the surviving children to join other schools. A central minister also visited the site on behalf of the Prime Minister of India. The relief announced by the state and central government were disbursed on 17 July 2004. The district administration arranged a primary school in Natham village and accommodated 46 students under the Educational Guarantee Scheme of the government.
Yadava College constructed a park in memory of the 94 children by planting 94 saplings and termed in Kumbakonam Park in an idea to create environmental awareness among future generations. The state government constructed a memorial park near Palakarai, the Cauvery bridge, in Kumbakonam in memory of the lost lives. The park was opened by the then Deputy Chief minister, M.K. Stalin on 6 June 2010. The park was constructed at a cost of ₹ 19 lakh, housing children's amusement equipment in an area of 7,300 sq ft (680 m2). The government allotted housing plots to 59 homeless parents of the deceased of the total 89. A charitable trust named Amritha helped construct houses in the plots and the colony was named Amrithapuram. In 2012, 25 families of the victims constructed an Amritha Vinayagar temple in the premises in memory of the lost lives. The temple was consecrated on 21 June 2012.
The trial of the case started after a long delay on 24 September 2012 in the Thanjavur district sessions court. The case had 21 accused and had 488 witnesses that included 18 children affected in the accident. The headmaster, Prabharan and three others turned approvers. There was a petition filed in the court to include the then collector of district, J Radhakrishnan, and three others in the case, but was dismissed. A total of 17 people were chargesheeted in the case and were set to face trial. The seventeen included Pulavar Palanichamy, his wife and correspondent of school Saraswati, three teachers, six officers in the education department (elementary), the Kumbakonam municipal commissioner, town planning officer and four assistants in the education department. The education department officials were accused of negligence of their duties and the lower level officers for conspiring with the officials for obtaining and renewing the licenses. The three teachers were accused of showing negligence shown towards rescuing the children. Pulavar Palanichamy, Saraswati and the three teachers filed petitions in the lower court to discharge them from the case. Their plea was dismissed both in the lower court and Madras High Court on 14 July 2012.
The trial was concluded on July 17, 2014. On July 30, 2014, Thanjavur district sessions court sentenced school founder Pulavar Palanichamy to life imprisonment and fined Rs 51,65,700. Palanichamy's wife and school correspondent P Saraswathi, headmistress J Santhalakshmi, noon meal organizer R Vijayalakshmi, cook R Vasanthi were sentenced five years imprisonment. Officials in district elementary education office, officer R Balaji, his assistant S Sivaprakasam, superintendent T Thandavan and assistant G Durairaj were also sentenced five years jail. Total fine of Rs 52,57,000 was imposed and ordered the compensation of Rs 50,000 to parents of each victim.
The chartered engineer, B Jayachandran was sentenced two years in jail and a fine of Rs 50,000 but later the court suspended his punishment. The court cleared charges of other eleven accused, including three teachers, six education department officials and two municipality officers.
The bench of Madras High Court in Madurai allowed the appeal filed by the state government against the release of 11 accused in the case on 13 September 2014. The eleven who were acquitted by the Principal District Court were B. Palaniswamy, the District Elementary Educational Officer, R. Narayanaswamy, the District Educational Officer, J. Radhakrishnan, the Assistant Elementary Educational Officer, V. Balasubramanian, the Assistant Elementary Educational Officer (Nursery), K. Balakrishnan and G. Madhavan, Additional Assistant Elementary Educational Officers, P. Devi, R. Mahalakshmi and T. Anthoniammal, the teachers of the school, R. Sathiyamoorthy, the then Kumbakonam Municipal Commissioner and K. Murugan, the Town Planning Officer.
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