March 31, 2020
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The Death Trap

A small town struggles to come to terms with one of the year's worst tragedies that claimed over 400 lives

The Death Trap
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The small market-town of Dabwali in Sirsa is in a state of shock. But as the enormity of the tragedy sinks into the collective consciousness of the populace, stunned disbelief is giving way to an overwhelming outpouring of grief. And as the town mourns its dead—by the evening of December 24 the toll had gone up to 400 and the figure was expected to reach 500—the resentment is palpable.

The fire at the annual function of the local DAV school on December 23 was probably the worst disaster of the year, apart from being the most gruesome. Said Haryana police constable Om Prakash, who was on duty at the Rajiv Marriage Hall where the incident took place: "It was a recipe for disaster. The quadrangle where the function was being held was covered on all four sides with flimsy material used for putting up pandals. As was the roof. But what made the place a virtual deathtrap was the fact that an outer layer of momjama (a water-proof plastic sheet) had been placed over the pandal, which trapped the fire and caused the pandal to cave in. A 12-ft-high wall surrounds the area and there is only one exit, not counting the small iron door towards the rear which had been covered by the tent."

And since it was the annual school function, around 1,200 persons were present, with parents and children dressed in their synthetic best, which was another reason for the high number of casualties. "But," Om Prakash added, "what I will never forget were the screams of the children waiting in the wings for their turn on the stage, when that part of the pandal collapsed."

Neither will Sukhdev Dutt. His 60-year-old wife had stepped out of home for the first time in years to see her school-going grandchildren perform on stage, with two of her daughters-in-law accompanying her. The trio and the four grandchildren they had gone to applaud all perished in the blaze. And till late on December 24, a completely shattered Dutt's elder son, Kripa Shanker, had only been able to light six pyres because the family could not trace the body of one of the children.

It was a common predicament. "This perverse administration cannot even help me find my dead," said an inconsolable and furious Darshan Kumar from Gidderbaha. "I went to Bhatinda, Sirsa and Mallot before I came across the body of my sister-in-law here in Dabwali. I am still searching for the body of her daughter."

And Mahender Singh and Chinder Singh, both residents of Dabwali, pointed to the fact that "all that the doctors at the hospital did on December 23 was to refer the victims to other hospitals". Recalled Chinder: "I was told to buy my own cotton-wool when I carried in the severely burnt daughter of a friend of mine. A while later, she was referred to the hospital in Sirsa. But when I asked for an ambulance to take her there, I was told that the vehicle was only meant for emergencies."

But will the horrendous death of nearly 400 children in a town with a total population of about 20,000 be enough to put an end to the wanton negligence that quite obviously led to the tragedy? It seems unlikely. According to Hari Shanker, additional DG, Haryana police, "The hall where the incident took place is an illegal construction and no permission had been taken for the function." Yet senior officers admit that "this sort of thing" is normal practice and point to the fact that the district commissioner, one of the few who escaped without serious injury, was the chief guest at the function. "He had no business being there," said an officer.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Minister of State in the Union Human Resource Development Ministry, Selja. "I was originally asked to be the chief guest, but I just didn't feel like going so I said no at the last minute," she recalled after the tragedy. The SDM of Dabwali, Somnath Khamboj, and his wife, however, were there, despite the fact that he was to leave for a new posting the next day. Both died in the blaze.

While the police have registered a crimi -nal case against the owner and the manager of the hall where even the most basic of safety precautions were not in place, they point to the fact that the owner himself lost his wife and two of his children, including Rajiv after whom the hall is named, as evidence that the problem is endemic. "Nobody observes building and safety regulations here; it is only because a tragedy of such magnitude has occurred that this has become such a major issue," says the local SHO.

The source of the fire seems obvious: the organisers were using a generator as there had been a power failure and the wires seem to have started sparking as the generator was not switched off when the power supply resumed. But Haryana Chief Minister Bhajan Lal was not convinced. "I will not rule out the possibility of an explosion," he declared on December 24 when he visited the site, and asked a senior police officer whether "RDX could have been used". He was told that the fire was caused due to a short circuit. "But these terrorists are capable of anything," he pointed out after a couple of minutes. And then again, after having "inspected" rows upon rows of charred bodies lying in the open at the government health centre, he told a gathering of sobbing residents: "I cannot bring the dead back though I promise to do everything to alleviate the suffering of the injured...terrorists have been trying to kill me off as well, but I have been lucky."

And so, while the chief minister may think he left after doing his bit, the pall of gloom that has descended on this town on the Haryana-Punjab border is unlikely to lift in the near future. Too many people have lost too much.

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