Principal and Session’s Court of Thanjavur order on the Kumbakonam school fire brings back painful memories of the tragedy of July 16, 2004, that extinguished 94 young lives. If only the school management and the education department had paid heed to fire safety, these children who died would today be in their teens and going to higher secondary school!
What is even more distressing is the fact that such accidents can happen again, because even today, the education departments are not enforcing mandatory fire safety norms.
In May this year, the Delhi fire chief AK Sharma rued the fact that a large percentage of schools in Delhi do not apply for fire safety certificates despite repeated reminders and those who do get them, do not apply for renewal. And many schools are located in such congested localities and unauthorised colonies that in case of a fire, even reaching the spot become extremely difficult, he had said.
It’s the same story in almost every state. In the first week of July, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation had put up on its website, the names of 2,869 schools, cautioning that they were unsafe for children as they had failed to get the fire safety certificate.
The names had also been sent to the education department for suitable action, the civic authority said.
What becomes apparent in all these cases is the callous disregard for safety exhibited by not just the school authorities, but also the state governments in general and the education departments in particular.
And this is despite several Supreme Court judgments focusing on the child’s right to safe schools.
In April 2009, in response to a writ petition filed by Avinash Mehrotra following the Kumbakonam fire tragedy, the Supreme court had directed all states and Union Territories to ensure that all schools comply strictly with the National Building Code of India, 2005, particularly part IV pertaining to fire and life safety.
The schools should also have fire extinguishing equipment and the staff trained to use them, the apex court had said.
The state governments are clearly guilty of contempt.
In its order of July 30, the district and sessions court sentenced not only the school management, but also four officials of the education department to five years’ imprisonment, sending out a clear message that the department of education too will be held accountable for its lapses.
However, inefficiency, sloth and corruption are so deep-rooted in these departments that it will take more than a court order to bring about an attitudinal change.
So the parents associations have to become more active and demand compliance by schools.
Demand that the school display the fire safety certificate issued by the fire department in the lobby and make sure that it is valid.
Read up Chapter IV of the National Building Code. Also the ‘Code of practice for fire safety in educational institutions’; published by the Bureau of Indian Standards.
It will help you in your fight for fire-safe schools. The code looks mainly at three aspects pertaining to fire: its prevention through safety measures, early warning systems and fire dousing provisions in case of a fire and fire escapes to prevent injuries and deaths in case of an accident.
Demand that the school have a ‘fire safety committee’ with adequate representation of parents on it, for regular inspection of fire fighting equipment and the school’s preparedness for meeting emergencies.
It is also important to check often, the electrical installations for safety, besides the canteen and the kitchen for safe practices. In short, take active interest in the safety of the school to which you send your child.