THEY came out of coma, they moved to a new school and they rejoined classes after a gap of a year. Some shifted, to nearby towns like Toopran, Medchal, or Hyderabad so that they could be nearer to healthcare facilities for frequent treatment. But two and a half years after 16 children of Kakatiya Techno School died in an accident at an unmanned railway crossing in Masaipet in Telangana’s Medak district, the 24 who survived now live with unspoken fears.
On January 19, there was a similar accident in Etah, Uttar Pradesh, in which 12 children between the ages of six and 13 died at an unmanned crossing. This year’s Budget has promised to eliminate unmanned railway-level crossings by 2020.
In the courtyard of a small house in Islampur village in Medak, it is very difficult to hold the attention of Nitisha, 8, for more than a few seconds. She is unable to focus on anything, and struggles to say her name. She was in coma for 14 days after the July 24, 2014 accident, with a hairline fracture to her skull and with pieces of glass all over her body. She still suffers from giddiness and body pain, and cannot hold anything with her left hand for long as it starts shaking.
Mother Manjula Goud says Nitisha couldn’t go to school for a year, and is now in Class 1 at Ideal School at Toopran, 10 km away. “She has memory lapses, and cannot concentrate on anything for more than a minute. It is very difficult to teach her anything,” Manjula says, urging her to talk, to tell her teachers’ names.
Her father Naresh, a clerk at a private factory, says the heavy doses of medicines Nitisha took for more than a year resulted in her putting on a lot of weight. “Our biggest fear is that her mental growth is stunted. Before the accident, she was sharp in studies, very obedient and smart. Now most of the time she doesn’t want to go to school. She is already two years behind.”
The parents, who have two other children, say Nitisha doesn’t speak of what she remembers of the accident either, but they can guess. Since she recovered, the eight-year-old refuses to sleep alone and has nightmares that she struggles to explain.
It takes her a while to answer a question about her favourite subject at school. “Maash!” she shouts suddenly. Her parents think she is talking of maths.
A few kilometres away, in Venkatayapalli village, Mallesh Goud says he is thankful every day that his son Varun, 9, is alive. “That is all that matters.”
The boy spent 34 days in coma at a hospital in Hyderabad after the accident, the longest among the children. It was a miracle that he pulled through, says Mallesh.
Their neighbour Mahesh says Varun used to be very naughty earlier. “He was also the noisiest and most playful kid on the school bus, would keep waving from inside.”
Now he is unusually quiet, the family says, refuses attempts at a conversation and prefers to stay inside their two-room home.
“He panics if there is a loud noise, and doesn’t stay alone in a room. He wakes up at night covered in sweat but does not say anything. He can’t focus and I fear he has learning disability. He is also very conscious of the marks left by stitches on his left leg, from the thigh to the ankle,” Goud, who works as a driver for a private company, says.
His daughter Ruchita, 11, who escaped the accident without an injury, was given the national bravery award by the Indian Council for Child Welfare for pulling out three children from the bus. She also received a scholarship to study at Abhyasa Residential School at Toopran till Intermediate.
In a small house in Gundreddipalli village, Rafat Begum points to a photo of a young girl beaming. Her granddaughter Nadira Fatima, she says, is no longer the girl in the photo, with the accident leaving her with a head injury and glass shards all over. Nadira, 10, also frequently falls ill now and misses school.
Unable to take care of her as they both work as labourers, her parents have sent her to stay at Government BC Welfare Girls’ Hostel at Toopran, 10 km away from Gundreddipalli. Rafat works at the hostel and can keep an eye on her here. Nadira is enrolled in Class 3 at the school on the premises.
Of the surviving children, among those to have made the best recovery is M Harish, 7, a Class I student now at Toopran’s Ideal School. Eager to show what he knows, he rattles off his father’s mobile number and says excitedly, “Science, Maths and Telugu are my favourite subjects. Shall I recite table of 4?”
The accident had left both his legs fractured while pieces of glass were embedded all over his body. He also bit off a part of his tongue when crushed between two seats, but fortunately his speech has not got affected. “He was at home for a year; it took six months for both his legs to heal fully,” says father M Venkatesh, a small farmer.
Venkatesh adds that while Harish doesn’t show visible signs except severe body pain and giddiness at times, he is not the same. “He doesn’t want to sleep alone. He has also started wetting his bed, which he never did. We are unable to do anything as he is scared of seeing a doctor.”
Following the accident, all the students left Kakatiya Techno School, and most joined Ideal School at Toopran. The Telangana Education Department instructed all schools to hire an additional full-time driver who could take over in an emergency. The Kakatiya School bus was being driven by a temporary driver on the day of the accident.
“The other directive given to the schools was to avoid routes passing through unmanned railway crossings. We told them to take a longer route if needed,” says Education Minister Kadiam Srihari.
Later, the Kakatiya Techno School shut down, with the government cancelling its recognition. Its 350 students, says the PRO of Kakatiya Group of Schools, Kranthi Kumar, moved to nearby schools.
At the Masaipet railway crossing where the accident occurred, the South Central Railways erected gates within three days.
By now, most of the 24 child survivors have started taking the bus again to their new schools.
So has Pavan, 6, the son of Yadagiri Swami, who lives next door to Mallesh Goud. Pavan started going to school only last year but, Swami says, he is as scared as the parents who lived through the Masaipet tragedy every time their children take the bus.
“I didn’t want to send him by bus initially. In fact, I followed the bus once or twice to check how the driver was behaving. We keep telling the driver to go carefully and avoid overspeeding,” he says.
There is one comforting thought. “The kids are not afraid of the school bus,” Swami says. “In fact, they enjoy the ride.”