The hospital fire that consumed nearly hundred patients in Kolkata has saddened everyone. Already scores of articles have appeared in the newspapers, internet and journals. Therefore if I write about this tragedy, it will be one among the thousands and get lost. But at the same time I feel that I should say something about this tragedy. This takes my mind back to Kumbakonam school fire tragedy seven years back when school children studying primary classes died in fire. I reproduce my feelings which I had penned in my diary at that time.

It was a moving sight at Kumbakonam, a big town in Tamil Nadu, most famous for its temple culture of the South in 16th July. Suddenly the town had woken up from its slumber and shed its leisurely way of life to come into nationwide – and why, even international prominence. The reason was a ghastly fire that engulfed a private school building and consumed the lives of nearly hundred school children – all kids. The children were literally burnt to death. Those who survived were even lesser fortunate – because they had been charred beyond imagination and even if they survive may have to lead a miserable life for the rest of their lives.

As soon as this incident happened in a remote town in India, news reports along with video photographs of the children wriggling in pain because of the physical torture they faced was flashed across the lengths and breadths of European countries and the USA. The foreign media are known for their efficiency in flashing news as soon as the events take place. The Bangladesh coup in which Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was killed with his entire family was reported by the New York Radio within a few hours of its happening whereas the Indian media reported it only after a full 12 hours lapse albeit being the neighbors of Bangladesh. Even Indira Gandhi’s assassination was reported after a significant delay.

The foreign media had made this happening an internationally important one. But for this, a small town like Kumbakonam would never have gained prominent in international cities like Amsterdam where people cannot even pronounce the names of Indian cities properly. In India, of course the roasting of children alive has been talked countrywide. When adults die tragically, though it invites sympathy, there may be people who feel satisfied because of grudge or jealousy or enmity with the dead people. But children are God’s creation and are loved and liked by everybody irrespective of artificial barriers created by mankind.

There are many points that will be debated in our society for much time to come. First of all, people have started debating about granting licenses and approvals to private schools. Particularly English Medium Schools are flourishing in nooks and corners of even small towns and sometimes even in villages in the South India. This trend is catching up even in many parts of North India albeit on a lesser scale compared to the South. In South India, people consider it prestigious to send their children to an English Medium School. If the child is able to mutter a few words like ‘Mummy’, ‘Daddy’ the parents are immensely pleased and are prepared to dole out any money out of their hard earned income. The private schools exploit this trend in the society and charge heave fees, which the parents are forced to cough up. There are monthly fees, capitation fees, quarterly fees, annual fees, and donations for particular purpose like construction of school buildings etc. There is an additional fee charged for providing school uniforms, notebooks, books etc.

But what about the facilities? They are miserably lacking. Mostly these so called ‘schools’ are functioning in single houses or sometimes even in flats!! There are no playgrounds, no properly ventilated classrooms, no fire safety protection, no properly maintained toilets. The teachers hired to teach in these schools are poorly paid, never receiving more than Rs.1,000/- per month. These teachers have to look after five or six classes loaded with bunch of children. The assignments given to the children are not properly corrected. The teachers show contempt and lack widespread knowledge to teach to the children. There are no library or computer facilities that could give a modern education to the children. The owners of these schools are exploiting the sheer foolishness of the parents living in their areas.

In the Kumbakonam school tragedy, the children who were charred to death were lower class students. The higher-class students and the teachers did not die. This raises another question. Why should the lower class students be burdened to climb up the staircases to enter their classrooms? Why not their classes are located on the ground floor? Had the higher class students studied in the second and third floors in the Kumbakonam school, probably the death and the injury toll would not have been so high because matured students could have jumped to safety on immediate notice of the fire whereas the kindergarten children lacked even the knowledge of fire let alone protecting themselves.

The teachers and the elder students protected themselves by flying out of the place and did not care to save the children who were being roasted alive on the top floors of the school building. This has attracted intense criticism from the government, media and the public. But the bitter truth is that human mind is so fickle and human beings are so selfish that in case of any emergency, they care only to their own safety and do not think of how to save other people at their own cost. The schoolteachers and elder students are also human beings and cannot be expected to act differently. Therefore there is little point in making this behaviour as a target of attack.

It is also an open secret that the State Government officials take huge bribery and sanction approvals of schools, which do not fulfill the eligibility rules. In an age of scandals and briberies, it will be futile to expect that this trend will change just because of a single tragic event – however catastrophic it may be. Therefore the Kumbakonam tragedy will be forgotten after a few days and ‘normalcy’ restored in granting school approvals after taking briberies.

God has taken back these innocent children whom He created. The flames have engulfed their lives but the same flames are unlikely to engulf the false prestige and the greediness of the parents who are bent upon educating their children in English Medium Schools however poorly maintained they are! God save these children.


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