A Thanjavur court on Wednesday held 10 people guilty and acquitted 11 others in the Kumbakonam school fire accident in Tamil Nadu that killed 94 children and left 18 injured in 2004. Shortly after pronouncing the verdict, the court awarded a 10-year jail term to the owner of the Sri Krishna Middle School, where the tragedy occurred on July 16, 2004. The court also slapped a fine of Rs 47 lakhs on the school principal and sentenced him to life.
The court held 10 persons, including the school owner, head mistress and principal, guilty for 2004 tragedy, and acquitted eleven others for the lack of concrete evidence.
Reacting to the judgement, a parent told a news channel, "We have been waiting for the verdict for the past 10 years. We had expected punishment for all the 21 accused."
Special Public Prosecutor Madhu Sudhanan had earlier said that the prosecution will press for maximum punishment for the accused in the case.
The unfortunate incident occurred when a fire broke out in the school's kitchen, which was used to prepare mid-day meals for the children, and then spread to the first floor due to the school's thatched roof. The tragedy claimed the lives of ninety-four children, all between the ages of five and nine. After preliminary investigation it was found that the school teachers had abandoned the children struck in the fire.
It came to light later that three schools, including a government-aided institution, functioned in the same building even without a municipal license. Authorities from various departments had certified the school building's structural stability, sanitation and student strength without making a single visit. On the day of the tragedy, an inspection was expected over an administration issue.
In a bid to boost attendance and to claim grants and teacher postings, investigators say the school had fraudulently packed the private school children in the aided school wing. The school building had inadequate exit routes for the children to escape and the gates were locked when the accident happened. The burning thatch and the bamboo poles fell, blocking the exit routes.
Though the accident shook the nation and cases were lodged against officials of the school management and the state government, the case moved from one court to another for years. The case started to gather pace when charges were framed against 21 accused in 2012 and trial began soon after that. The voluminous chargesheet in the case has around 4,000 pages.
The accused included Palanisamy, designated school correspondent, his wife Saraswathi, daughter Santhanalakshmi, the then municipal commissioner Sathyamurthy, the then town planning officer K. Murugan, three school teachers and officials of the state education department. The headmaster of Sri Krishna Girls High School Prabhakaran turned approver. Later, charges against C Palanisamy, then chief educational officer at Thanjavur, S Paramasivam, then tehsildar of Kumbakonam, and A. Kannan, then director of elementary education, were dropped.
Around 230 prosecution witnesses were examined in the case. The Tamil Nadu government has constructed a memorial park in Kumbakonam in memory of the 94 children who lost their lives. Even today, there is a big banner, sporting small pictures of the children who lost their lives, outside the now defunct school at Kasiraman Street in Kumbakonam.