The Madras High Court on 10 August freed all the convicts of the 16 July 2004 Kumbakonam school fire accident in which 94 children were charred to death and 18 were injured, as reported by The Indian Express. The verdict was delivered by a division bench of Justice M Sathyanarayanan and Justice VM Velumani.
The Court has acquitted all the seven accused in the shocking fire accident who had been sentenced to serve varying degrees of jail terms. A total of 21 accused had been charged under various sections of IPC in the incident.
The Bench set aside the conviction and sentence passed by the lower court in the case of school principal Santhana Lakshmi, Gajalakshmi, noon meal organiser, engineer Jayachandran, District Educational Officer R Balaji, Personal Assistant Sivaprakasam supervisor Dhandavan and one Durairaj, an assistant.
It also ordered the release of the prime accused, founder of Sri Krishna Matriculation School Pulavar Palaniswamy, claiming that the sentence he had already during the investigation, trial and post-conviction would be sufficient. A sum of Rs 51.65 lakh fine imposed on him has reduced to Rs 1.16 lakh by the HC.
Vasanthi, the cook, had appealed against her five-year jail term. The court has also modified her sentence by saying that she has already undergone the period of punishment.
On 30 July 2014, the Thanjavur district and sessions court acquitted 11 of the 21 accused, and convicted 10, including Palaniswamy and his wife, Saraswathi. Saraswathi had died while the case was ongoing, and thus she was abated of her charges.
The fire that shocked the country
On the morning of 16 July 2004 at around 10 am, the afternoon meal was being cooked at Sri Krishna Middle School. The school kitchen had a thatched roof which caught fire from a spark of firewood. Soon, it spread to the classrooms that had thatched roofs as well.
Sri Krishna Aided Private School, Saraswathi Nursery and Primary School and the Sri Krishna Girls High School, all functioned in the same building where around 700 students were studying.
The fire went on for about an hour and in the process, charred the bodies of the children beyond recognition. The firefighters and the authorities had started breaking down the concrete wall by 11 am, as the only way leading to the classroom was a staircase.
The investigations that followed
The studies revealed that the school did not have proper fire combating facilities and this sparked off a large debate in the civil society about the condition in which the school was operating. While the case was transferred from court to court for the first few years, the trial gathered pace after charges were framed by on 10 September 2012.
The Justice Sampath Commission, set up for the investigation of the case, observed that the violation of safety norms and poor infrastructure were the main causes for the tragedy. It was found out that the school authorities had defied law at every step.
The Logical Indian community condemns the verdict by the Madras High Court that has set free all the principal accused in the horrific fire accident. The investigations had shown how the school authorities were responsible for the fire, in spite of that, this verdict comes as a major setback to the expectations of those who sought justice. This verdict is an example of a situation when the judiciary has yet again failed to dispense justice to the aggrieved.