PUPIL safety demands that educational institutions schedule all annual maintenance, repair and renovation work during the summer vacation when the schools and colleges are closed. If any such work spills beyond that period, they have to take all possible precautions to protect the students and prevent any untoward incident. That would mean completely enclosing the construction area and cordoning it off, as well as posting guards to ensure that students do not go near the site and no material falls on the children or construction dust pollutes the atmosphere,
Failure to follow these basic precautions could well turn out to be a major safety hazard. A recent order of the apex consumer court brings this issue into focus and serves as a warning to all educational institutions.
The tragic incident that the order highlights revolves around S Sinthu, who was 10 years old at the time and studying in Class IV of Kendriya Vidyalaya, Fort William, Kolkata. On July 11, 2012, while she was going to the toilet through the school corridor, a slab of cement from the site where some renovation work was going on fell from a height onto her right leg, crushing it.
She was rushed to the Command Hospital, where they diagnosed it as a case of multiple fractures. She remained in the hospital from July 11-18. Subsequently, her parents took her to the Madurai Institute of Orthopedics and Traumatology, where she underwent treatment from August 22 to 27 and again from September 18-24.
Meanwhile, the parents requested the school for reimbursement of medical expenses incurred for the treatment, but neither the school nor the contractor responded. While the school argued that the contractor was liable, the contractor blamed the school.
Besides the pain and the trauma undergone by the child and her parents, the treatment and the effects of the injury disrupted the girl’s education. It in fact changed the course of her life. According to her mother, the injury took away the girl’s ability to walk normally and made her dependent on others.
The District Commission, before which the mother complained, said the civil contractor, the school authorities and the principal were all equally guilty of negligence and asked them to jointly and severally pay a compensation of Rs 14 lakh (the mother had asked for Rs 16 lakh), besides reimbursement of Rs 3 lakh spent towards the girl’s medical expenses and Rs 5,000 towards the cost of litigation. The case was decided ex-parte as none of the parties showed up.
In response to their appeal, the State Commission pointed out that if only the school had taken adequate measures to safeguard the interests of students, the tragic incident would not have happened. The school, it said, should have undertaken the repair during the summer vacation. Instead, it scheduled the renovation work when the school was open, without safeguarding the physical wellbeing of the students. The school, for example, could have easily come up with an alternative route to the toilet, so that the children were not exposed to such danger of construction material falling on them.
“Therefore, the carelessness and apathy shown by the school authority leaves no doubt about the negligence in taking care of the students. The principal or the school authority cannot be permitted to wash away their responsibility to provide such minimum safeguards,” the State Commission said. It in fact pointed to the negligence of all the parties — the contractor, the school authorities and the principal.
But having said all that, the Commission reduced the compensation from Rs 14 lakh to Rs 8 lakh, forcing the mother to file a revision petition before the National Commission. The contractor too filed a revision petition against the order of the State Commission. The apex consumer court dismissed the contractor’s petition, saying there was no illegality, material irregularity or jurisdictional error in the decision of the lower consumer court. It also dismissed the appeal of the complainant for higher compensation.
While the positive aspect of this order is the fixing of liability on all the three for their negligence, the negative aspect is the low compensation and the long legal battle.
While the Kolkata District Commission gave its order (complaint no. 399 of 2013) on October 29, 2014, the decision of the State Commission came on July 14, 2017. That of the National Commission came on March 3, 2023! The 10-year-old child is now 21.
Way back in 2001, while awarding compensation to the parents who lost their three-year-old child Brinda on account of the school leaving open a septic tank, the National Commission had pointed out that “a school’s responsibility does not end with providing quality education. Safety of the students is as much an integral part of the service provided by it” (S Somasundaram vs The Correspondent, Sri Chakravarthy International Matriculation Academy, FA no. 518 of 1994, decided on August 1, 2001).
Obviously, the message has not reached every educational institution and parents must drive this home.
— The writer is a consumer rights and safety expert
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