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After the fire, Jaya leads firefight

Kumbakonam, July 18: A massive conscience-clearing effort has been launched side by side with rehabilitation measures in the wake of the killer school blaze in Tamil Nadu.

Chief minister Jayalalithaa today said in a statement in Chennai that all schools with thatched structures should replace them with non-flammable material before July 30. Education department officials were instructed not to allow any classes in thatched sheds in schools.

“Safety norms cannot be compromised where children are concerned,” she said. Jayalalithaa warned of derecognition and prosecution for criminal negligence if the schools failed the deadline. She also told district collectors to intensively inspect schools for a week from tomorrow.

DMK chief M. Karunanidhi welcomed the decision in party mouthpiece, Murasoli, but likened it to “locking the barn door after the horse has bolted”.

Schools across the state have been ordered to hold a prayer meeting tomorrow and close down for the day in mourning. The cabinet, too, would hold a condolence meeting tomorrow, Jayalalithaa said.

Many of these schools, however, may not have sufficient funds to replace the roofs, including those at the critical midday meal centres — the cause of the Kumbakonam disaster that killed 90 children.

“Amma’s (Jayalalithaa) first priority is to get all the thatched roofs removed, even as efforts are made to gather resources for alternative roofing in schools which are financially poor and for alternative classrooms in nearby buildings and so on,” state education minister C.V. Shanmugham said here today.

Word of the government move has gone round by now but several schools which this correspondent visited today in rural areas of Thanjavur district continued to have thatched roofs.

One such was Karthi Vidyalaya English Medium and Nursery School, in Karupur village panchayat, near here.

“We will remove the thatched roof of our school and accommodate them (the students) in our house below for a while for the classes,” said an elderly woman associated with the school.

Another state-aided middle school in the same village, too, was asking for trouble as its thatch-roofed midday-meal centre was located right beneath the first-floor terrace classrooms, also thatch-roofed.

“I am now scared to send my boys to the school,” said T. Subramaniam, a resident.

Karupur and its adjoining village, Natham, together accounted for 27 of the children killed at Kumbakonam.

The parents of the 13 victims from Natham had put their wards in the primary section of the cramped Saraswati English Medium School as it had offered a pick-up van service for Rs 30 a month per student.

The village — inaccessible to any public bus service because of the narrow approach road — however, paid the price with the lives of its children.

In Kumbakonam town, the focus shifted to rehabilitating the 740 students of the Saraswati English Medium School.

“We have given an option to the parents to move over to the alternative schools without having to pay any fee and where textbooks and uniforms will be provided free,” Shanmugham said.

A parent alleged that on Friday his two daughters, in Classes II and IV in the English medium on the ground floor, “were asked to go up to the Tamil medium primary classes on the first floor, just to show an expected inspecting team that the school had the mandatory numbers in the Tamil medium classes”.

The gradual return of order, however, threw up another murky dimension to Friday’s disaster. R. Sridharan said the classes of his two girls, who studied in the English medium in classes II and IV of the ill-fated school, were usually held on the ground floor.

“But that day, several students (from English medium) were asked to go up to the Tamil medium primary classes on the first floor, just to show an expected inspecting team that the school had the mandatory numbers in the Tamil medium classes,” Sridharan alleged.

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