For M Saravanan, a jeweller from Kumbakonam town in Thanjavur district, the events of 16 July 2004, remain etched in his memory. He had just dropped his son, Lakshminarayan, in school and arrived at his shop when the news of the fire reached him.
The 51-year-old recalls, rushing in panic to the Krishna English Medium school as thick smoke engulfed the air of this temple town. He arrived merely 15 minutes after the fire broke out but the institute's thatched roofs had already done the damage.
94 children, including the jeweller's son, were killed in one of the worst fire tragedies the country had ever seen.
Saravanan remembers, being completely terrified, as he walked past the mangled remains and burnt faces of young children to find the body of his eight-year-old boy.
"It was impossible to recognise our own children. Their faces were burnt and bodies disfigured. Several of us took back remains of a child we weren't sure was ours and did the last rites, all in the hope that somebody would do the same for our son," he says, fighting back tears.
"We went to the Supreme Court to ensure that the school management that was responsible for this incident is punished and were victorious. But even 13 years after the incident, our fight is not over. We are yet to get the compensation we were promised," explains Saravanan.
Battle for compensation
Over 100 families belonging to the Kumabakonam Fire Tragedy Victims’ Association had approached the Supreme Court in 2012, stating that the compensation provided by the government was not satisfactory and challenged the amount. The state government, a day after the incident, had given Rs 1 lakh to families that had lost a child and Rs 25,000 to children who were severely injured.
The Supreme Court, however, directed them to approach the High Court, according to advocate Tamilarasan, who has been handling the case for seven years. The victims' families, then approached the Madras High Court in 2012 demanding more compensation.
In 2014, an inquiry commission was set up by the High Court under a former judge, to look into the matter. The commission after a thorough investigation and discussion with the families awarded additional relief last year.
"In October 2016, the court recognised over 100 affected families and assured Rs 5 lakh each for those who had lost a child, Rs 6 lakh each for four children who were severely injured and Rs 5 lakh each for 3 children who sustained injuries. The government had to give us these amounts with interest," explains A Inbaraj, who lost both his sons in the fire tragedy. The court had ordered that the matter be settled within four weeks of the government, receiving the bank account details," he adds.
The families were relieved that this long-drawn struggle would come to an end. However, the amounts deposited in their accounts, were not as per the court's orders. "Families that should have got Rs 10 lakh after the interest was added, received only Rs 8 lakh. The government claimed that they had already given Rs 1 lakh after the incident. But this what the court had said," says Inbaraj.
The Association immediately filed a contempt plea, questioning the government's actions. Following this, the Madras High Court on Wednesday, issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government, for its 'failure' to compensate the victims and their families. A bench of acting Chief Justice Huluvadi G Ramesh and Justice R Mahadevan issued notices to the Chief Secretary and School Education Department regarding the matter.
The case has been adjourned for next week but the petitioners are disillusioned. "We have all lost our children who would have been there to support us as we grow older," says 50-year-old Inbaraj. He had lost both his 10-year-old and eight-year-old sons in the fire that devastated the school and now his concerns are all targeted at his 14-year-old daughter Jhansi Rani. "My two sons would have worked with me if they were alive and I wouldn't have worried about my daughter's future, education or marriage. We are only asking for what we would have had if my sons were not killed in the fire. Why is the government bringing us down to our knees like this? How is this fair?" he asks angrily.
Several families which have been fighting the case, have travelled over 500km back and forth to attend hearings in the Madras High Court. "I have come to Chennai around 40 times for this case," says Saravanan. "Every time the lawyer calls us, we leave everything and come running. The same wounds are dug open every time and the horrid memories of those mangled bodies surface. The government is making us relive the horror," he adds.
The Association's advocate and High Court lawyer Tamilarasan was, however, confident that the families will get justice. "The government has no choice but to follow the court's orders and I am expecting a favourable end to this case. The families deserve to be put out of this misery and to finally move on from the tragedy that killed their children," he says.