The bags and other belongings of the students retrieved from the school van at Longowal in Sangrur. (Express Photo)
Three-and-a-half-year-old Navjot Kaur had been insisting on going to school with her cousins. Her father, Nikka Singh, was not too sure. After all, Navjot’s cousins, Kamaljeet Kaur and Simranjeet Singh, both five years old, used to travel in an auto to the private school in Longowal area of Punjab’s Sangrur district. With hardly any protection against the biting cold, the children had been falling ill.
On Saturday, however, Nikka allowed Navjot to accompany her cousins. Reason: the school had purchased a mini van to ferry the kids on Friday and it was on its first run Saturday.
Little did Nikka know that Navjot’s first day at school would also be her last. The nearly-30-year-old, illegally run, ramshackle van caught fire metres away from the school. It was on way to drop home 12 students. Four children, including Navjot, were trapped inside the burning van and charred to death.
“Though the new session begins in April, but the little girl wanted to go with her brother and sister. Nikka allowed her to go because they school had bought a van. Little did we know that it would be the first and the last time that Nikka would see Navjot off to school,” said Sukhpal Singh, a resident of village Kothe Amarsingh Wali and a close friend of Nikka’s family that lives in neighbouring Kothe Desuwala.
Navjot’s cousins too died in the incident. Kamajeet’s father Jagsir Singh was inconsolable. He frantically looked for his daughter’s body, but found only ashes in the charred vehicle.
The other victim, Simranjeet, was son of Kulwant Singh, a cousin of Jagsir and Nikka. All of them live close to each other and are marginal farmers having landholdings of about an acre each. The family’s pain aggravated all the more as the charred bodies are beyond recognition. “Everything is burnt. There are only ashes. How do I find out where my daughter is,” asked Jagsir as he clutched at piece of black cloth that he had found from the van.
Radhana, the fourth victim, was daughter of Satpal Kumar. A migrant from UP, he had settled in Punjab hoping to secure a better future for his family.
“Till yesterday, the children used to go to school in auto rickshaw. A few days back, all the parents had met the school management and requested to make better arrangement for transportation as the weather is too cold. The children had been complaining of cough and cold after travelling in auto-rickshaw, which is open from the two sides and offers no protection against the wind. The school thus brought this old van. We have now heard that it was brought from Delhi. A kindrergarten teacher had doubled up as a driver,” said Sukhpal.
Satnam Singh, a local and an eyewitness, said, “The van had just started from the school. We saw that its chassis was on fire but the driver was unaware”. Hardeep Singh, another local said, “Some villagers reached the van driving a tractor and stopped it. We broke upon the window panes and manged to rescue eight children. But four others could not be rescued. The fire had spread within seconds engulfing the vehicle”.
Sangrur Deputy Commissioner Ghanshyam Thori said that though the bodies have been charred, the organs are intact. “DNA test is the only way out to identify the children. It will be carried out a Mohali lab and after that bodies can be cremated,” he said.
Meanwhile, a 10-member fact finding committee demanded Rs 50 lakh as compensation for each of the four families. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who ordered a magisterial probe into the incident, announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 7.25 lakh to each of the victims’ families.