A decade after the worst ever school fire tragedy claimed the lives of 94 children in Kumbakonam, the school's founder was today sentenced to life imprisonment while eight of the nine others convicted were awarded five years in jail by a local court.
Pronouncing the judgement in a packed court, Principal District and Sessions Court Judge Mohammed Ali also slapped a fine of Rs 47 lakh on Palanisamy, founder of the school, but acquitted 11 other accused, a majority of them government employees of the Education Department.
The judgement was received with disappointment by some parents of the deceased children who said they would appeal against the aquittals.
The court also awarded Palanisamy ten years rigorous imprisonment with both the sentences running concurrently.
Palanaisamy's wife Saraswathi, also Correspondent (administrator) of the school, Headmistress Santhalakshmi, noon meal organiser Vijayalakshmi and cook Vasanthi were sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment and a total fine of Rs 3.75 lakh was imposed on them.
Out of five convicted officials of the education department, four were sentenced to five years imprisonment.
Jayachandran, Chartered Engineer was awarded two years RI under IPC sec 465 (punishment for forgery) r/w197 and a fine of Rs 40,000 was imposed on him.
R Balaji, District Elementary Education Officer, Sivaprakasam, Assistant EEO, Thandavan, Superintendent of Elementary Education Department and G Durai Raj, Private Assistant to the DEEO were sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment under IPC section 467 r/w 197 and a fine of Rs 10,000 each.
The judge ordered that out of the fine amount, compensation of Rs 50,000 each shall be paid to the parents of 94 deceased children, Rs 25,000 to those critically injured and Rs 10,000 to those who suffered minor injuries.
The accused were found guilty under various IPC sections including 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others), 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) and 285 (negligent conduct with respect to fire or combustible matter), and provisions of Tamil Nadu Recognised Private Schools (Regulation) Act,1973.
The July 16, 2004 tragedy had shocked the nation after fire that broke out from the makeshift noon meal kitchen in the building housing three schools spread to a thatched roof hut on the first floor killing 94 children and causing burns to 18 others.
The gruesome incident that occurred in Sri Krishna Aided Private School, Saraswathi Nursery and Primary School and Sri Krishna Girls High School located on Kasiraman Street in a narrow building brought to fore the utter negligence of authorities over safety norms.
About 700 students were studying in these schools.
Amid public outrage over the mishap, the state government had appointed a Judicial commission to probe and suggest measures to check such incidents.
"We have been waiting for the verdict for a long time. We were expecting a good judgement. But, when we came to know that education department officials have been acquitted, it has become a mental agony. Now we are pained more as those who were accused of killing the children have been let off. All should have been punished," said a parent of one of the victims.
Public Prosecutor Madhusudhanan said, "All should accept the court verdict."
Jayachandran secured bail after paying the fine amount.
Of the total of 501 witnesses, 230 were examined during the trial, which included survivors (children) and parents of the deceased children.
The court which concluded the arguments on July 17 had posted the case for orders today.
Though there were 24 accused initially, the state government had withdrawn charges against three of them.
Those acquitted today include District Elementary Education Officer B Palanisamy, District Education Officer R Narayanasamy, Assistant Elementary Education Officer J Radhakrishnan, Additional Assistant Elementary Education Officer K Balakrishan, Madhavan, V Balasubramanian, Primary school teacher P Devi, R Mahalakshmi, T Anthoniammal, Kumbakonam Municipal Commissioner R Sathiyamoorthy and Kumbakonam Municipality, Town Planning Officer, K Murugan.