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रविवार, दिसंबर 23, 2012

17 years on, Dabwali fire victims still carry the scars

DABWALI: The AMRI hospital fire claimed 91 lives in Kolkata earlier this month. Exactly 16 years ago, a marriage hall in Dabwali, a town on the Punjab-Haryana border witnessed the biggest fire (in terms of casualties) that the country has seen.
Six minutes still haunt Vinod Kumar Bansal. It was at his children's school annual day on Dec 23, 1995 that the tent at the venue -- filled three times over capacity with close to 1,500 people in it -- burned down due to a short circuit. The incident, that came to be known as the Dabwali fire tragedy, claimed 442 lives, nearly one per cent of the population of the town then."It took just six minutes and left nothing behind. People look at these," he says pointing at the burn marks on his face and hands, "and ask what happened. And it all comes back." Bansal lost two children aged four and seven with his wife in the fire. His eldest daughter managed to escape. Today Bansal is the president of the Dabwali Fire Tragedy Victims' Association that has been locked in a long, bitter court battle for justice against the managing committee of the DAV school, Dabwali.
"Fire disasters happen with alarming regularity. Only recently we had tragedies in the Delhi transgenders' meet and at AMRI in Calcutta. But neither the society nor the government is ready to take the necessary action to stop such events from happening so frequently," says Bansal.
In November 2009, the Punjab and Haryana High Court arrived at a sum of Rs 46 crore along with interest to be paid as compensation to the victims. The government was to pay 45% of the amount while the DAV managing committee was directed to pay the rest of the 55%. DAV challenged the decision, and in March 2010 was directed by the Supreme Court to deposit the first tranche of Rs. 10 crore as an interim amount to the executing court.
Lawyer Pramod Dayal, appearing for DAV in court, said he "could not comment on the merit of the case as the matter is pending in court." Lawyer Anju Arora representing Dabwali victims says, "As the case stands now with the next hearing later in January, the amount due from the government and the Rs. 10 crore from DAV has already been proportionately distributed amongst the victims."
There is an obvious frustration with the law having taken the kind of time it has. The one-man commission appointed to calculate liabilities took six years to submit the report for a six months' deadline. "Things would've been very different had it not taken so long," says 25-year-old Suman Kaushal, who suffered severe burn injuries to her head in the fire. The confident and articulate girl has acquired a B.Ed degree and wants to be a teacher.
The victims, though unable to sever ties with the incident that changed their lives, have picked up the pieces and moved on. Today, at a busy intersection of a market, stands the Dabwali Fire Tragedy Memorial Gate. As cars, tractors and carts pass by on the busy, dusty road; the memorial inside, which was the venue of the fire tragedy, remains deserted. It's only on the incident's anniversary that people gather there for a prayer meeting. There were attempts to start computer classes for children at the memorial and to convert it into a creche for children. But because of people's inhibitions, none of the projects took off.

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