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Natham gets attention, after school tragedy

By Ramya Kannan and Akhila Seetharaman

Natham near Kumbakonam from where 13 children were burnt alive in the school tragedy. — Photo: Vino John

KUMBAKONAM, JULY 20. About two km from Kumbakonam town, a near-dirt track breaks off to the left and winds another two km in the paddy fields before it curls into Natham — a non-descript hamlet that became prominent overnight. Thirteen children who died in the Sri Krishna School fire on Friday are from this settlement.

"Before Friday, very few, even in Kumbakonam, knew that this village existed. Now, Natham is the name on everyone's lips. It is fame thrust on us, but at what cost," asks a village elder.

As many as 60 children from the village attended the school, for it offered a van service right up to the village. "For thirty rupees a month, the van would take them to school everyday. It was so convenient. That is why we admitted two of our children there," says Ramakrishnan, a vegetable vendor. One daughter escaped, while the other, 8-year-old Aiswarya, died in hospital. Ramakrishnan has admitted his surviving daughter in another school and swears that he will take her to school on his cycle, if there is no option.

In the eight years Ramakrishnan and his family lived in Natham, there have been no efforts to lay roads, run buses, build a school, provide for sanitation or a medical centre.

"Had the town bus come to the village, it would have given us options," says K.Poyamozhi, who claims he was the first in the village to put his children in the school. He and his wife, Chandra, looked for their son, but found his body altered beyond recognition. "My son has a flat foot. Finally, that helped us identify his body," says Chandra.

Agonising moments

Other parents also spent agonising hours searching for bodies. Manimaran, a labourer says, "There was a string around my son, Prem Kumar's waist which we recognised. Otherwise, he was burnt beyond recognition."

In the eight streets of the village, grieving parents are hunting, among their belongings, for photographs of the dead children. But many of them do not even have pictures. Pandarinathan has an old picture of Sridhar — a healthy toddler dressed up as a girl. He cherishes the photograph, only one of his youngest son. "This boy here, Barathi, too would have died," he says, putting his arm around his second son. "He went to another school this year, as he was promoted to the sixth standard."

Sridhar was rushed to the hospital with severe burns. Pandarinathan recounts, "I went to the school in search for my son as soon as I heard about the fire. It was such a gory sight; my heart nearly burst. I have no idea how I reached the hospital." There, his son, who was being administered IV fluids, died as the nurse hitched up the third bottle. "He was thrashing around wildly and screaming in pain. Sridhar could not sleep without a fan running in the room. I wonder how much he suffered that day. My skin now burns at the thought of his pain and anguish," says Pandarinathan.

Even in his sorrow, he is emphatic about what needs to be done. "We need roads and a town bus. For years, we have been neglected. Now that we have the attention, we hope we get what we need."

And indeed, they did. Today, the district administration started laying a road to the village and clearing bushes. A temporary medical sub-centre was set up to provide care and psychological support to the villagers and a team of psychiatrists, along with the District Collector J.Radhakrishnan, went from home to home counselling parents and siblings of the deceased. The icing on the cake is the proposal to set up a primary school under the Education Guarantee Scheme.

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