December 23, 1995 was supposed to be a special day for Vinod and Renu Bansal. Their children — two daughters, 9 and 7, and a five-year-old son — were all participating in dance performances at their school’s annual day function.
So, on the chilly winter morning, the five set off for Rajiv Marriage Palace, Dabwali, Haryana, the venue of the function. As the canopy was packed beyond capacity at 1,500 people, the DAV school management locked the main gates of the compound.
Himanshu, the Bansals’ son, was on stage performing, even as Renu and their younger daughter Nancy were cheering him from near the podium. The elder daughter was in the dressing room some distance away, getting ready for her performance. Suddenly, a fire broke out, and people were running helter-skelter with melted synthetic material of the tent falling on them. In a matter of seven minutes, the small school function turned into the biggest fire tragedy in the country — killing 442 people, including 258 children, and injuring over 150 others.
Renu, Himanshu and Nancy Bansal perished on the spot. Vinod, who was seated at the end of the canopy and close to the gate, was lucky to escape. The left half of his face, left hand and left ear all burnt, he hitched a ride from a jeep passing by and reached Dr Kataria’s hospital.
“In the evening, my parents told me that my eldest daughter had reached home, while the bodies of the rest of my family had been identified,” says Bansal who, almost 20 years on, still lives with his physical injuries — his fingers are deformed, his left hand has lost grip, his chin’s hair follicles get regularly infected and have to be surgically removed, and he has to shake his hands every few minutes “because they hurt”.
While he hasn’t had to pay for the life-long treatment of his injuries, this relief too required going to court. After the fire, the Haryana government gave Rs 1 lakh to the families of the deceased, Rs 50,000 to those who lost a limb, and free treatment to those who suffered other injuries. “The free treatment was, however, stopped when a new government headed by Bansi Lal was formed in 1996. That upset me a lot. So, I filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court for continuation of free treatment,” he says.
Soon after the PIL was filed and reported about in the media, the state government re-introduced free treatment, which continues to this day. It also helped that the high court took notice of the “abysmally low” compensation, and in January 2003, appointed a single-judge commission to decide the right amount of compensation. The commission submitted its report six years later, in 2009, recommending that Rs 34.14 crore be paid to the victims along with six per cent interest since June 2003. The high court upheld the recommendations, with 45 per cent of the money to be paid by the government and 55 per cent by DAV school.
The government paid up, but the school challenged the order in the Supreme Court. The apex court upheld the high court’s decision, forcing the school to pay the compensation. The school, though, withheld the payment of interest, prompting the Dabwali Fire Victims Association, of which Bansal is the general secretary, to approach the civil court.
The matter is still subjudice, and the next hearing is on September 19. Bansal has attended “every” hearing, and has lost count of the number of times he has gone to court.
Two years after the tragedy, he married a widow who was a mother of two children. “My new family includes three children — my wife’s two kids, and my eldest daughter who survived the fire.” He will “never forget” his first family, though, or other victims of the fire. Which is why he, and other families, did not file a criminal lawsuit against the tent owners and the electricians — the only ones named in the FIR, tried and convicted by a CBI court, and sentenced to a two-year jail term — as “the tent owner too lost six family members to the fire”.
1995 Dabwali fire accident:
> No. of victims: 442, including 258 children
> No. of years: 20
> No. of court hearings: 2,000 approximately
> Compensation per victim: Rs 1 lakh from the Haryana government; a high court-appointed commission recommended Rs 34.14 crore to be paid along with 6 per cent interest since June 2003.
> Charges against accused: IPC Section 304A (causing death by negligence) and 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others)
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