Nineteen Years Of Apathy

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Forgotten tragedy: Around 400 children were burnt to death at a school function on 23 December 1995, Photo: AP
Forgotten tragedy: Around 400 children were burnt to death at a school function on 23 December 1995,
Photo: AP

It is said that time heals physical injuries but wounds sustained by our psyche take much longer to heal, if at all. Ask Suman, who had survived a fire that broke out during a prize distribution function in her school 19 years ago, which the then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao had described as “the second Bhopal gas tragedy”. The memories of that fateful day are still writ large on her grievously disfigured face even as she runs from pillar to post, looking desperately for a job.

On 23 December 1995, Suman, then a Class V student of DAV School in Dabwali town of Haryana’s Sirsa district, had gone to attend the annual prize distribution function, which had been organised at a community centre. A fire broke out in the big pandal that had been erected for the function. Within minutes, around 400 children were charred to death and many more got burn injuries. Suman’s face got badly burnt.

It was clearly a man-made tragedy as no arrangements had been made for fire-fighting equipment and there were no emergency exits. The then deputy commissioner of Sirsa, MP Bidlan, who was the chief guest at the function, fled the scene instead of helping to rescue the children trapped in the fire. In fact, his gunmen reportedly blocked the only available exit so that he could have a smooth escape. This is said to have made it more difficult for the children to get out, thereby adding to the casualties.

The TP Garg Commission, appointed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court to fix responsibility for the incident, held that Bidlan was “negligent in the discharge of his duty” and asked him to pay compensation to the victims. But before the report was submitted, Bidlan got voluntary retirement and was made a member of the Haryana Public Service Commission by the then CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda on the same day. (Bidlan went on to join the BJP ahead of the 2014 General Election.)

Visiting the town after the incident, Rao promised to set up a medical college there so that the injured didn’t have to go to faraway places for treatment. That turned out to be an empty promise. In fact, the government hospital in Sirsa still doesn’t have a burns specialist. Three years ago, when the survivors approached Hooda with a request to appoint a burns specialist, they were told that it was not possible.

Meanwhile, Suman struggled against huge odds to carry on with her life. She could not attend school due to the burns and studied at home up to Class X. It was after much struggle and persuasion that she got admission in the local senior secondary school. The school authorities were initially reluctant to admit her because of her disfigured face.

Suman went on to do her graduation and then completed her bed in 2008. Then she cleared the state teachers’ eligibility test securing 93 percent marks, but could not land a job.  She met Hooda twice requesting for a job but got nothing more than assurances. She also met Dabwali MLA Ajay Chautala, who offered her a job with a salary of Rs.3,000 per month in an educational institution run by a trust named after his late grandfather, former deputy PM Devi Lal.

Suman’s mother told Tehelka that she wants her daughter to get married, but Suman is determined to stand on her own feet before thinking of marriage.

Every year, politicians of all hues make a beeline for Dabwali on the anniversary of the tragedy. “But they do little more than offering lip service to the victims,” says Inspector General of Police (Hisar Range) Anil Kumar, who had lost his daughter in the tragedy. Kumar was then a DSP and was on duty at the venue when the fire broke out. He sustained burns all over his body while helping to rescue the trapped children.

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