Chennai: A court in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur yesterday sentenced the owner of a school in Kumbakonam, where 94 children perished in a fire in 2004, to a life term in prison. Nine people were sentenced to varied terms in jail, while 11 others were acquitted.
The eight school and government officials were jailed for five years and an engineer for two years.
The judgment comes a decade after the accident at the Sri Krishna Middle School on July 16, 2004, in which 18 other children were injured.
According to the judgment, school owner Palanisamy was sentenced to a life term, and 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment.
His wife Saraswathi, also a school official, was sentenced to a five-year term.
The others who were handed out five-year terms were school headmistress Santhanalakshmi, noon meal centre in-charge Vijayalakshmi, cook Vasanthi, and government officials Balaji, Sivaprakasam, Thandavan and Durairaj.
Jayachandran, the school building engineer, was sentenced to two years in jail.
The court also levied a penalty of around `5m on the 10 convicts.
Of the fine, `50,000 each should be paid to the parents of the 94 dead children, `25,000 to 15 seriously injured children and `10,000 to the three other injured children, the court ordered.
In the morning, the court acquitted 11 accused, and held guilty 10 others. Later in the day, the quantum of the punishment was announced.
Reacting to the acquittal of the 11 accused, 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.”
A mother, who lost two children to the school fire, said: “This is not an acceptable decision. The government officials should not be allowed to go free.”
“Justice delayed is justice denied. Freeing the 11 accused is not acceptable. The government officials should be punished...,” said another parent.
The parents assembled at the court premises and urged the state government to appeal against acquittals.
In 2004, the fire broke out in the school’s thatched noon meal centre on the first floor. There were around 200 students in the classrooms when it caught fire.
Some other schools also functioned from the same premises - the Sri Krishna Aided Private School, Saraswathi Nursery and Primary School, and the Sri Krishna Girls High School.
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 bamboo poles fell, blocking the exit routes.
The fire raged on for an hour and killed 94 children.
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 charge sheet in the case ran into 4,000 pages. Around 230 prosecution witnesses were examined.
Prabhakaran, headmaster of Sri Krishna Girls High School, turned approver.
Charges against C Palanisamy, then chief educational officer in Thanjavur, S. Paramasivam, then tehsildar of Kumbakonam, and A. Kannan, then director of elementary education, were dropped.
The Tamil Nadu government constructed a memorial park in Kumbakonam in memory of the 94 children who lost their lives.
Even today, there is a big banner with pictures of the children who lost their lives, outside the now defunct school at Kasiraman Street in Kumbakonam.