December 23, 1995, is perhaps the most heartrending day for the small town of Dabwali in Haryana. More than 440 lives were lost, including many children, when hundreds of students of the DAV Public School and their parents, who had gone to attend the school's annual day function, got trapped in a fire.
The function was being held in a makeshift tent at a local Banquet hall. Nobody there had any inkling of things to follow.
In less than ten minutes, one per cent of the population of the town perished. Almost every family in the town was affected, and even today, the scars of the tragedy are still visible.
A burn mark on the face is not the only scar Vinood Bansal carries. Deep inside, almost two decades later, his wounds are still fresh. He lost his wife and two children and can't forget those 10 minutes which changed the fate of this small town from a prosperous one to one which had many stories of tragedies - some of the stories which the world hardly know. Even today when Vinood talks about that fateful day, his eyes get moist.
"We live in this grief...in the last 17 years ....don't think we even laughed... Even today those golden memories of children are still fresh in mind.....17 years we have struggled and tried to help people...and carry on," said Vinood.
Dr Arun Kumar shows NDTV the pictures of his two daughters and his wife, among other 442 pictures of those who lost their lives, hanging on the wall of a small room where the tragedy happened. His one year old son escaped with 80 per cent burn injuries, but his wife lost her life saving their son. Dr Arun was not in town at that time. The horror of that day still haunts him.
"Life is incomplete... in few moments the scene of life changed... all of a sudden everything was finished... I feel in few moments I was backwards by 20 years," Dr Arun Kumar says, with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Now, 17 years later, the affected families will get compensation. The Supreme Court has finally upheld the verdict of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The DAV Managing Committee had appealed in the Supreme Court against the High Court verdict directing the school to pay compensation of Rs 33 crore to the victims of the fire tragedy.
On November 9, 2009, the High Court had ordered a total compensation of Rs 55 crore to be shared between the DAV management (Rs 33 crore) and the Haryana government (Rs 22 crore) in the ratio of 55 per cent and 45 per cent respectively.
The Haryana government had accepted the High Court verdict and deposited its share immediately. However, the DAV management appealed to the Supreme Court in 2010.
In the tragedy, some lost their children and some lost their parents. Venus Sethi, now 21 years old, lost both his parents and elder sister. He was the lone survivor in the family; he too lost a hand and suffered 60 per cent burn injuries. At that time, he was three years old. Today, he is a student of Commerce, trying to lead a normal life. But when one talks to him, somewhere one gets a feeling that he did not live his childhood.
"I lost my father, mother and sister... all three I lost... but today I feel whatever is destined, happened... I didn't think much about it... I don't remember anything about it but hear from people that it was a big tragedy... every year on December 23, I go there and see all the names and there are all the pictures of victims... also I pray for my family," the 21-year-old says.
Umesh Gupta's story is another testimony of how bravely people of Dabwali faced the tragedy and moved on in life. Umesh lost both his hands in the fire; he was hardly 12 years old at that time. But he grew up with a never-say-die spirit. Today he runs a small grocery store.
"I have 100 per cent disability and I am still working... there are people who are living without any limbs... life will go on... life was there before this incident and remained after it as well and it will continue for thousands of years... The world will never stop... problems do come," Umesh says.
December 23, 1995, is a day which will not be forgotten easily. Pictures of the tragedy shook the entire nation. Innocent young children were consumed by the fire. At that time, the entire nation sympathised with Dabwali, but today, it is time to salute this small town the way they unitedly faced and braced the disaster and moved on.