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Court needs to send out a stern message on fire safety

columns Updated: Aug 19, 2017 22:14 IST
Kumbakonam,fire safety

The Madras High Court order on the Kumbakonam school fire comes as a big disappointment to all those who value safety in goods and services and look up to the courts to award deterrent punishment to those who violate such laws and those who collude with them, at the cost of public safety.

The devastating fire that engulfed the school on June 16, 2004, had left 94 children dead and injured 18 others. Justice K.Sampath Commission of Inquiry, appointed following the tragedy, had named 24 people as ‘indictable’. Eventually, 21 of them were charged under various sections of the Indian penal code and in 2014, the trial court had acquitted 11 and convicted 10. The main accused, 85-year-old P. Palanisamy, the founder of the school, had been sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 51.65 lakh; eight others, including the administrator of the school (his 81-year-old wife Saraswathi ), and officials of the education department, to five years of rigorous imprisonment and a chartered engineer to two years of RI. The varying fines imposed on all of them should be given to the families that lost their dear ones, the court had said. .

Now the division bench of the Madras High Court has set aside the conviction of seven of them. The court reduced the life sentence of the founder to the time already served during investigation and post conviction in 2014 and the fine to be paid by him to Rs 1.16 lakh and ordered his release. The court reduced the sentence of the cook. Since Sarawathi had died during the pendency of the appeal, the bench abated the charges against her.

The disappointment in the verdict is all the more when one recalls the gross violations of the safety laws leading to the tragedy. In fact the report of the Commission of Inquiry unravels the devious, cold-blooded manner in which the school tried to make money at the cost of the safety of the students and ran three schools in a building not fit for even one, in gross violation of various laws and the unholy nexus between the school and the education department as well as the municipal authority, that overlooked the flagrant infringements.

In violation of fire safety norms, the school was not only running class rooms under thatched roofs, but was also cooking the mid-day meal in one such kitchen. And it was using dried coconut leaves and thatch for the fire, to save on the money given by the government for firewood under the free mid-day meal programme! On that fateful day, the sparks from the burning dry leaves in the oven ignited the low roof, resulting in a fire, which spread quickly to classrooms with thatched roof.

The toll could have been much less, but for the school’s insatiable greed. In a bid to get more noon-meal subsidy from the government, the school always falsified the number of students and whenever there was inspection by the education department, it pulled out the children from the concrete-roofed English medium school , gave them false names and forced them to remove their ties, belts and shoes and sit in the aided school that had the thatched roof. On that day too, it had resorted to similar tactics to make up for over 150 pupils.

Given these circumstances and the fact that today violation of fire safety norms by schools is more a rule than an exception, one would expect deterrent punishment that would send out a stern message that safety violations will not be condoned. The high court verdict, like the Supreme court verdict in the Uphaar case, unfortunately falls short of these expectations. And this does not augur well for public safety in the country.

First Published: Aug 19, 2017 22:14 IST