Building Safe schools

Despite clear norms on the desirable number of floors for schools, a recent court order permitting more number of floors raises questions over safety.
Building Safe schools

Chennai

The Madras High Court in a recent order, had removed the restriction on the number of floors in schools on the basis that a mere circular or letter of an authority, who is not concerned with planning permission approval, cannot override statutory regulations. The order has sent shock waves among various bodies strenuously fighting to ensure that all schools provide safe facilities for its children.
In this specific case, the petitioner originally made an application seeking planning permission for the construction of ground plus three floors school building to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). It was rejected by citing the Justice Sampath Committee report, which had stipulated ground plus two floors for schools based on augmenting fire safety. The recommendation had come following the horrific tragedy at a school in Kumabkonam, which left 94 children dead and 18 others injured.
But notwithstanding this, the petitioner after putting up the construction, made another application seeking planning permission for the third floor. Reliance was placed on Development Regulation No.25 (7), which provides for stilt plus four floors or ground plus three floors for school buildings. Since the plea was not considered, the court was moved.
Though it was argued that approval for school buildings are being processed with reference to Justice Sampath Committee report, based on a letter received from Director of School Education, Justice M M Sundresh who heard the case ruled in favour of the construction. He said, “A mere circular or letter of an authority, who was not concerned with the approval of the planning permission, cannot override the statutory regulations. As long as 25 (7) is in force in the statute, the petitioner cannot be denied permission to put up the third-floor subject to other compliance.” However, Change India, director, A Narayanan, on noting that the single judge had erred in lifting the restriction on the number of floors for school buildings, said, “Unfortunately, the school education department and CMDA have failed to bring to the judge’s attention the ‘National Building Code of India (NBCI), 2005, in particular Part IV, which deals with fire safety in educational institutions. The code clearly states that nursery and elementary schools should be housed in single-storied buildings and the maximum number of floors in school buildings shall be restricted to three, including the ground floor.” It may be noted that the Supreme Court, while dealing with a PIL moved citing Kumbakonam fire tragedy, had held that prior to the grant of recognition, the concerned State Governments should ensure that the buildings are safe and secured from every angle as per the safety norms incorporated in NBCI.
The controversy also brings into focus the death of a Class 4 student in October last year, who fell from the fifth-floor terrace of a private school in West Mambalam. The fatal fall on the road clearly revealed that the school building had failed to abide by the norms.
But senior counsel A. Sirajudeen speaking on the legalities involved in the issue said, “The law available in the statute cannot be abrogated by a letter issued by the authorities. So, the rationale adopted by the judge is perfectly right. If safety is the main criteria even the building with one floor would be fatal to the children if a child falls from it.” Voicing similar opinion pertaining to the judgment Su. Srinivasan, Assistant Solicitor General of India, said, “Though it could be true that NBCI had spelt out ground plus two floors as being apt for the school and the apex court could have passed a direction in this regard, the reality is that they are mere recommendations. If the state is keen on enforcing the ground plus two floor norms, it ought to bring necessary changes in the development plan.” Despite best intentions and frequent agreements, these codes and safety standards rarely bind builders in law or practice. In fact, the Supreme Court in an order pertaining to safety of school children observed that, “Some building codes exist in law, but few states or municipalities have enacted a standard as rigorous as the National Building Code. Moreover, building by-laws and rules are not followed by most of the schools causing serious safety hazards for children.” 
Rules for buildings
Is the national building code for schools being followed?
  •  Should be ‘A Class’ construction with brick/stone masonry  walls with RCC roofing
  •  Nursery & elementary schools should be housed in single-storied buildings
  •  Maximum number of floors in schools shall be restricted to three, including the ground floor
  •  Proper air circulation and lighting is available with open space all round the building
  •  Shall be free from inflammable and toxic material
DEVELOPMENT REGULATION AS PER SECOND MASTER PLAN FOR SCHOOLS
 Stilt plus four floors (or) 
 Ground Plus three floors

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