Ninety-four children were burnt alive, many were killed after getting trapped in classroom
It was July 16, 2004, when the thatched roof of School kitchen in Tamil Nadu's Kumbakonam caught fire, as lunch was being prepared, before spreading to other rooms. Ninety-four children were burnt alive, many of whom were killed after getting trapped in a large classroom which had only one exit. Sonia and Priyanka were also among the names featured in the list of casualties. "We feel like they are still alive with us in spirit. Not a single day goes without their thoughts," said their mother Palaniammal.
On Thursday, the Madras High Court acquitted seven accused in connection with the case, including government officials. The school founder and prime accused, the cook, were set free. A 10-year jail term pronounced by a lower court was reduced to the time they have already served, about five years and the fine on the founder too was slashed from Rs 51 lakh to Rs 1.1 lakh.
Ms Palaniammal is not the only one haunted by the horrid memories of the death of her children.
Saravana Kumar and his wife Ms Vijayalakshmi, who also lost their son Neelakandan in the incident, feel they have lost all sense of purpose in life. "My husband and I feel we too should have died along with our child. Tamil Nadu government should get them due punishment," said Ms Vijayalakshmi.
"Lots of children go to schools Tamil Nadu. We thought the incident would raise awareness on safety," said Mahesh, father of a boy who died in the fire tragedy.
While the grounds for the acquittal and reduction in the sentence are yet unclear, child rights activists are mounting pressure for an appeal in the Supreme Court.
"Safety of schools is a matter of concern. Accidents continue to happen and there could be another Kumbakonam fire tragedy," said child rights activist Padam Narayanan.
Law experts say that a high number of casualties does not always translate to longer sentences, adding that after all, it was an accident.
Although, nothing could be said to console the parents who have lost their children in the incident, questions of lapses by prosecution are bound to be raised.