Until that fateful phone call, it was an unremarkable day for Bijoy Babu, an Assistant Professor of the Department of Electronics and Instrumentation Engineering at the Sarabhai Institute of Science and Technology at Vellanad here. Quiet in the absence of the students who had dispersed to their respective hometowns to prepare for their final semester examinations, Mr. Babu resolved to use the time for paper correction, when his cell phone rang.
The moments that came in the wake of the call, when a frantic voice at the other end struggled to break the news of the bus accident, are a blur to this teacher. The accident that occurred when a bus carrying 43 persons fell into a deep ditch in the hilly Idukki district on manoeuvring a sharp turn and led to the death of seven students and the bus driver. Speaking to The Hindu from one of the hospitals in Idukki district where his students – many grievously injured – were being treated, Mr. Babu conveyed, through a breaking connection, the shock and disbelief that the team of seven faculty members who reached Idukki were grappling with.
“It was barely a week ago that we had a farewell programme organised by the juniors of the college. Over the past four years that we have known each other, we have developed great relations and there was no formality between a professor and student. We had some inkling that, being the final year, the students would probably arrange a trip after the examinations. But this has come as a complete shock. None of us even knew the students had left for a trip during the study leave, until this incident,” said Mr. Babu.
Delayed by the relentless rain that mirrored their gloom, Mr. Babu and the other teachers managed only a brief conversation with one of them on their arrival, as all, including those who had sustained relatively minor injuries, had been sedated. Four bodies among the eight had been despatched from the hospital, he added.
His sentiments of utter disbelief echoed across the tiers of authority right from Principal M.K. Jana, who, when contacted, underlined that all excursions carried out with the college’s authorisation were mostly in the form of industrial visits and involved careful planning, letters of consent from the students’ guardians, to and fro travel via the institution’s buses and drivers in their employ. Students, he said, are dropped right at their doorstep at the end of such trips.
A 10-day break
“It was through the television that I heard about this incident. The final exams are scheduled for April 1 and who would have thought that an excursion would be arranged in the middle of a brief 10-day study leave break that they were granted. This is completely unexpected,” said Dr. Jana. Apart from ensuring that a team from the college was sent to the spot, other medical measures would also be taken, he said.
Another staff member here who belongs to the Mechanical Engineering Department, K. Sadasivan, was also appalled by the news. “There was an incident two years ago, when we got a whiff of a plan that the students were headed to Kanyakumari and then they were let off with a warning. The college maintains a strict policy of conducting tours but this was without any of our knowledge. Very sad news,” he said.