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Drowning death of child with autism in Kolkata sparks outrage, demand for fair probe

"I can still see Sambuddha in every corner of my house". Subhajit Ghosh's voice breaks as he remembers the last time, he waved goodbye to his son.

Five days ago, on 20 February, Ghosh took his son Sambuddha to a sports day event at his school, The Asha School. This is a school for children with disabilities run by the Army Welfare Wives Association, Eastern Command.

Sambuddha, less than five years old, had non-verbal autism.

Accompanied by his father, an IT executive, Sambuddha attended the event, standing second in one of the competitions. At 12 pm, Ghosh handed his son over to the class teacher. School authorities were to, as was the routine, drop Sambuddha home, where he was picked up by a family member or caregiver.

Barely 19 minutes later, I called one of the other parents to check if Sambuddha was on the bus. I was told to come to the school immediately as something serious had happened. I rushed to the school and found no school authority there. A parent who was present told me to rush to the Command Hospital in the army premises. When I got to the hospital, I saw a team of doctors pumping Sambuddha's heart. When I identified myself, they said there was no heart or pulse rate. - Subhojit Ghosh, Parent

Many lapses

Ghosh was later told that Sambuddha drowned in a pool at the hydrotherapy room in the premises. The room is supposed to be kept closed in the winter months, from October to April, but that was not the case.

Further, the pool was filled with water and kept open, a major oversight on the part of Army authorities, school governing body and school principal given that this was a planned event.

In fact, there was a parent teacher meeting called by the school principal and governing body to talk about the decorum to be observed that day, where aspects regarding safety were discussed.

Ghosh is angered by the lapses at multiple levels - the caregiver, school and army authorities.

"We thought he would be safer in a special school and that too one located within army premises and managed by them", he says, the anguish evident in his voice. "I feel my child was completely unattended to and this was the first layer of security breach. Everything went wrong in 15 minutes, what kind of security is this?"

A case of negligence has been filed. So far, however, the police has stopped short of naming the school principal, vice-principal and class teacher as the family has demanded. The army too claims to have launched a separate probe.

Little comfort for Sambuddha's family as well as the larger community of parents with disabled children. They point out that this is the second such incident in six months.

In September 2018, during a Teacher's Day celebration at a school in Barasat, outside Kolkata, negligence led to a child drowning in a nearby pool. A probe was launched but did not lead to any substantive action.

"After what has happened to Sambuddha, we demand that the government take charge and conduct an enquiry", says Dr Aditi Bandyopadhyay, managing trustee of SAMYA Foundation, an NGO that reaches out to people with developmental challenges.

As a parent to a child with autism, Bandyopadhyay says two incidents, within a sort time span, point to an urgent need for guidelines that regulate organizations working for people with disabilities.

"We don't feel safe after such incidents because children with conditions like autism, mental disabilities or for that matter even physical disabilities are most vulnerable. Many parents have come forward to say that there have been instances when they suspected abuse on the school's part but did not speak up as they feared the child would not be allowed to continue in the same school".

A meeting has been called on 26 February by leading disability rights groups in West Bengal to discuss these issues in detail.

"We have convened a meeting of all NGOs and likeminded groups who want to associate with us regarding this", said Soumen Upadhyay, Parivaar Bengal. "We are inviting organizations to make suggestions which will be considered, and the next course of action framed".

The incident has clearly moved the hearts of many. Last week a candlelight march was held outside the Command Hospital which saw the presence of Sambuddha's friends and supporters.

"We need to know what happened, what led this to happen", says Bandopadhyaya. "Sambuddha left without saying goodbye to his parents. This should not happen again".

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