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Most schools in India have no fire safety measures. The Tamil Nadu school fire tragedy in which 90 children have been burnt alive illustrates gross failure on the part of society and the school authorities to ensure safety of children. We are publishing the following article by Pushpa Girimaji, who writes a regular column on consumer affairs — Editor-in-Chief

Time for all schools to wake up
Pushpa Girimaji

There is dire need for schools to be safety conscious, particularly because the lives of young children are involved. The Kumbakonam school tragedy on Friday is a classic example of what such lack of safety consciousness can do. In fact, the school management in this case is guilty of negligence on several counts: Besides the fact that the school location and its construction flouted all fire safety norms, the school did not have any fire extinguishers. And worse, when the tragedy struck, no attempt was made to rescue the tiny tots who were trapped on the second floor of the building. The Department of Education too has to take full responsibility for allowing a school to be run in such a building.

The Government of Tamil Nadu announced compensation to the bereaved families and also ordered the closure of the school. But that’s not enough. The school should be made to pay for its negligence. In cases such as this, no amount of money will compensate the parents for the loss of their children, but they must file class action suits against the school so that it sends out a warning to other schools violating safety norms. In the case of S. Somasundaram vs the Correspondent, Sri Chakravarthy International Matriculation Academy, where a young child fell into an open septic tank and died, the apex consumer court held the school authorities guilty of negligence for having left the septic tank uncovered. It’s observation in this case is highly relevant here: “When a school admits a child, it undertakes to look after the safety of the child during school hours. This undertaking has been clearly breached in the present case”.

Meanwhile, I would urge parents associations and residents associations to take it upon themselves to inspect the schools in their area and the schools to which they send their children. Please do not allow schools that flout safety norms to function. Consult fire officers, safety experts, discuss among yourselves, what are the requirements for a safe school. Make a list and visit every school in your area. Inspect them for fire safety: Look at the location of the school, its entry and exit points, windows. Are they large enough to allow the children’s exit in an emergency? Do they have mandatory fire extinguishers? Do they have fire hydrants? How large are the staircases? Do they have strong railings? Is the fan properly fixed to the ceiling? Are there safety devices to cut off power supply in case of a short circuit? Look at the school building. How safe is it? Is it designed taking into consideration the safety aspects? Is it earthquake proof? Are there any temporary structures that may come crashing down in a heavy downpour or a gale? Inspect the school furniture. Are they safe? What about the playground and the play equipment? Does the school maintain adequate supervision over the children? What about the drinking water in the school? Is it cleaned regularly? How safe is it? Is it purified?

Be absolutely meticulous and wherever you find schools flouting safety norms, point it out to the school management and give them time to rectify them in a week or a fortnight. If they fail to do it, threaten to withdraw the children. Demonstrate in front of the school, in front of the Education Department if they fail to act. Draw public attention, media attention. Do not allow unsafe schools to function. Believe me, it is only such citizens’ actions that can prevent tragedies such as this and force schools as well as the Education Department to pay more heed to safety.

Similarly, force the Education Department to review and tighten its quality standards for schools, keeping in mind the safety aspect. The department should not only make these standards public, but should also announce, once in six months, the inspections of schools done by them and the list of schools which have been asked to close down for flouting safety norms. And their safety standards should also include any temporary structures that the schools may put up for exhibitions and functions. Remember the Dabwali tragedy where again, young children were burnt to death when the tent in which they were witnessing the school’s annual day celebrations caught fire? Or the school in Ghodasar in Gujarat in which 32 children perished (in 2001) because the school’s construction was so poor that it came crashing down on the school children like a pack of cards, when the earthquake struck? If only the Education Departments had done their job well, these tragedies could have been averted.
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