Four children were burnt alive when a nearly-30-year-old, illegally run, ramshackle van of a private school ferrying students back home caught fire in Punjab’s Sangrur district on Saturday, police said.
The youngest victim was a three-and-a-half-year old girl visiting the school for the first time and the oldest a five-and-a-half-year old girl. Three of them were from an extended family.
The accident took place on Sidh Samadha road of Longowal area in the district, just 200 metres from the school at about 2pm. There were 12 children in the van – a 1990’s-model, petrol vehicle, fitted with an LPG cylinder that was bought by the school authorities on Friday and deployed to ferry children for the first time on Saturday. It was being driven by a kindergarten teacher, identified as Dalbir Singh, officials said, adding the driver fled from the spot leaving the children trapped inside the burning vehicle.
While eight children were taken out safely by people working in nearby fields, four were charred to death. The victims include three and a half years old Navjot Kaur, five-and-a-half-years old Kamaljeet Kaur, and Radhana and Simranjeet Singh, both five years old.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh ordered a magisterial probe into the incident, while ordering the state Transport Department to launch a statewide checking of the road-worthiness and fitness to all school buses for students’ safety. He also ordered an ex-gratia payment of Rs 7.25 lakh to each of the victims’ families.
“Very sad to learn of the news from Sangrur where we lost 4 children because their school van caught fire. Injured have been rushed to the hospital. DC and SSP Sangrur are on the spot and I have ordered a magisterial enquiry. Guilty will be strictly punished,” he said in a tweet.
Sangrur Deputy Commissioner Ghanshyam Thori, who visited the spot, said that that police have registered a case under Section 304 of the IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) against owner-cum-principal Lakhwinder Singh of Simran Public School and driver Dalbir Singh.
“Preliminary inquiry indicates that the van was in condemned condition and was being run illegally, as per a report of the District Transport Officer (DTO). It was without relevant documents. If the DTO or any official of his office is found guilty he will be chargesheeted,” he said.
He said the school had recently shifted to a new building on the outskirts of the Longowal village. “The school has a temporary affiliation with the Punjab School Education Board. The affiliation of the school may be cancelled following an enquiry,” the DC said.
Later, Sangrur SSP Dr Sandeep Garg said that the school principal and the driver has been arrested. Police sources said the van was a 1990s petrol model and was unfit to run on the road. It was the first time that the 12 children had taken the van to school. The children, from village Kothe Desuwala and Kothe Amarsingh Wali used to go to school in auto-rickshaws.
Kamalpreet’s father Jagsir Singh, a farmer, was inconsolable and regretted sending his son in the van. Radhana’s father Satpal Kumar, who is clerk at a rice sheller’s, said, “Our children are gone now…such incidents keep happening. Authorities conduct enquiries and then close the matter. No action is taken”.
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 Civil Hospital’s senior surgeon, Dr Raj Kumar, said no child was admitted to the government hospitals in the district. “The children who survived were taken away by their families from the spot,” he said.
Punjab Education Minister Vijay Inder Singla, who is also Sangrur MLA, reached the spot and told media that the school had purchased the “very old van” on Friday. Earlier, while ordering state Transport Department to run a safety check of all school vehicles to avoid recurrence of such a tragedy, the CM also directed the District Child Protection Officers of Social Security Department to keep a strict vigil on schools vehicles violating provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act.
He also directed the District Child Protection Officers to identify school managements using worn out vehicles for transportation of students. He ordered the Transport Department to take strict action against any erring school managements, found violating the norms and guidelines prescribed under the various provisions of the Motor Vehicle Act, an official release said.
Meanwhile, Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann, who visited the spot, told media that the van was put to use by the school for the first day on Saturday. He demanded the registration of a murder case against school officials and the owner of the van.
Aam Aadmi Party and SAD condemned the incident and expressed condolence for the victim’s families. “I strongly condemn the usage of LPG-powered school van which caused this havoc. Strict action needed against school and civil administration,” Leader of Opposition in Punjab Assembly Harpal Singh Cheema said in a tweet.
In a separate tweet, SAD spokesperson Daljit Singh Cheema said, “My heart goes out to the families who have lost their beloved kids…This tragedy has shocked the whole nation”.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines