Abdul Waheed, who works as a mason in Ludhiana, said he would regret forever that he could not offer soil on the graves of his two daughters in Dharmpur of Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Shahjejan Khatoon, 11, and Sadiya Khatoon, 4, were among nine schoolchildren run over by a Mahindra Bolero on NH-77. By the time Waheed, 31, reached home from Ludhiana, his daughters had already been buried.
“Both girls had asked me to buy them a red frock. I had fulfilled my promise to Sadiya, who was younger,” said Waheed, sobbing as he showed the red frock. “I had promised Shahjehan that I would buy her a similar frock on my next trip to Bihar.”
Waheed also a son, Mohammed Raza, 13.
He questioned why schoolteachers never helped children cross the national highway. “Were they waiting for our children to die before taking preventive steps?” said Waheed, pointing towards a board by the highway that says “Slow down”; it has been set up by the police now.
There were other grieving families in Dharmpur’s Hardiya Tola, a Muslim-dominated area with mostly one-room Indira Awas houses for families of 7 to 10. Most people here work for daily wages, and some as masons.
“None of us can afford to send our children to a private school, but we ensure that we do send all our children to school,” said Mohammed Islam, who lost his daughter Heena Khatoon, 10, and son Salman, 4.
“Of about 650 children in the village, 450 have to cross the national highway daily for school,” said Mohammed Jaleel, a village elder.”We demand that the school either be relocated, or have another building set up on our side of the highway.” Jaleel said the state government should relocate all schools away from national highways.
On the other side of the highway, Dharmpur Middle School was shut, with no indication that it will reopen in the near future. The six-room school has 662 students enrolled, 360 of them girls. While the school did not look large enough to accommodate more than a fraction that many students, locals said 500 or more are always on campus. Students are also made to sit on the verandah and classroom floors. Only two of the classrooms, now occupied by police deployed to maintain order in the wake of the accident, had desks and benches.
Steel dishes could be seen strewn around the hand-pump on the school courtyard. Rice sacks for midday meals were piled up in the principal’s room while school records and some textbooks lay on the ground. Angry guardians had ransacked the school after the accident, and all teachers fled. The principal and his deputy have been suspended.
On the blackboard in one classroom were written instructions to students: “Milaan kijiye (match the following)”. One one corner of the classroom lay a heap of broken bricks. Blackboards in other classrooms were clean.
A few metres away, near the national highway, lay books and slippers. One book, Bal Pothi, carried the name of Anisa Kunari, a class I pupil who died in the accident. Another book had the name of Armaan Aman, who is injured.
Amardeep Kumar of class VI is another student who was injured. “The SUV was trying to escape after running over an elderly woman. It hit my right leg from the side but I managed to run out of the way and save myself,” Amardeep recalled. “Over 70 students had lined up and were crossing the NH, and the vehicle hit several of them.”
Amardeep said it would take him sometime to go back to the school. “We have no other school in a 2-km radius. We have no option but to return to the school once it reopens,” he said.