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Safety at school is nobody's business

Activists warn that another Kumbakonam tragedy is waiting to happen in Tamil Nadu.

Safety at school is nobodys business


The Kumbakonam fire tragedy in 2004, where 94 school children were charred to death and 18 others seriously injured, should have been the ultimate eye opener for the state government to improve student safety at schools.

Except for the formation of Justice Sampath Commission, which brought out several guidelines for enhancing safety at schools, nothing has changed on the ground. The respective governments vowed to implement the Sampath Commission recommendations but preferred to move the files to cold storage. 

Following that, there was a Supreme Court ruling in 2009 in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that ordered every school in the country to adhere to the National Building Code of India-2005. The court also wanted the state governments to ensure that all the parameters regarding school safety in the National Building Code was maintained, but nothing much changed on the ground. In 2016, 11 years after the Supreme Court ruling, the Central Government rolled out National School Safety police guidelines and the Tamil Nadu government is yet to go through the recommendations. 

The School education secretary is said to be studying the guidelines and taking steps to implement them. However, sources told DTNext that it will be a long-drawn process, even if the state government shows the wherewithal to implement these guidelines. “There are hundreds of schools that are not even in government records. Some schools, which operate in two or three grounds of land claim that they have the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) affiliation whereas as per CBSE requirement, the school should have a minimum of one-acre campus to get affiliation,” A Narayanan of Change India, who has been fighting a case for ensuring safety at schools, told DTNext. 

T Udhayachandran, who had joined the School Education Department as Secretary only a few months ago, told DTNext that they are looking into the recommen dations and are taking steps to ensure safety of children at schools. “We are looking into the matter and there are special programs to ensure safety of children,” Udhayachandran said. As per the Supreme Court directive, each district should have an expert committee to conduct annual inspection of all schools in the district to ensure that they adhere to the safety requirements. The apex court had also made dereliction of duty by the authorities a punishable offence. 

When the bureaucracy and their political heads are at the nascent stage of discussion, accidents continue to happen in various schools across Tamil Nadu. One boy falls from the fourth floor of a school building and dies when the regulations direct that no school building should have more than ground plus two floors. 

Another six-yearold boy fell into a 10 feet deep pit which was dug up by the school management inside the campus to dump waste and drowned in Kancheepuram about a week ago. “Another Kumbakonam tragedy is just waiting to happen. There are several recommendations that could improve the school infrastructure to provide better safety to the children. But no one seems to be interested,” Narayanan, who has now moved a fresh petition at the Madras High Court, demanding implementation of the Supreme Court ruling and to issue an injunction to schools that are functioning in violation of Supreme Court guidelines. He had also pleaded the court to stop the departments from giving conditional approvals. 

Sources said the school education authorities, while talking about safety at schools, only talk about improving the traffic safety. The Chennai city police, which could play a role only in ensuring safe travel of children to school and back, say that they are taking steps to ensure their part. “We do post policemen near schools and make announcements to motorists to be safe while driving near schools. The policemen are posted to ensure children cross roads safely and vehicles do not overspeed near schools,” H M Jayaram, additional commissioner, Chennai North, said.

Timeline of recent past

March 2015: Roof of a school in St Thomas Mount, collapsed, just before commencement of the classes.

July, 2015: A 14-yearold student of an  unrecognised school at Egmore died  after the asbestos roof collapsed.

March 15, 2016: Eight students in a private school in Pammal near Chennai were injured after the classroom roof fell on them.

April 1, 2016: A 12-year old student died after falling into an open septic tank in a private school premises at Udayarpatty village in Salem district.

7 June, 2016: A nine-year-old boy died after the compound wall of the government school collapsed at Kudumiyampatti in Dharmapuri district.

5 September, 2016: Two kids, an 8-yearold and a 11-year-old were both found dead in a school in Villupuram under mysterious circumstances.

October 8, 2016: A nine-year-old girl, a Class 4 student of SRM Nightingale School, fell from the 4th floor of the school building and died.

10 February, 2017: A three-and-a-half-yearold boy was found dead in open water tank in the Government High School at Athipattu, in neighbouring Tiruvallur district.

27 June 2017: A Class 2 student was killed and 2 other students were seriously injured after the compound wall of a Panchayat Union Primary School, in Thiruparankundram, Madurai district collapsed when it was hit by a water lorry.

July 13, 2017: A six-year-old boy, D Sabarish, a Class 1 student at a private school near Padappai, fell into a 10 feet deep pit dug up by the school authorities to dump waste and drowned.

Safety Policy

The SC recommendations and guidelines in National School Safety Policy.

Every school should have a mandatory fire safety inspection by Fire and Rescue Services Department followed by a no objection certificate, which is mandatory for establishment or continuation of a school.

An inspection team comprising experts like a civil engineer, a health officer, a revenue officer, a psychologist, a fire officer, a local body officer and a developmental officer besides educational authorities should carry out annual inspection at every school before commencement of each academic year.

The building plans for schools should be prepared only by a government certified engineer and the PWD executive engineer should inspect the building and award structural stability certificate.

In every district, one recognition committee headed by a retired judge and officials from revenue department, public works department, fire service, electricity board, health and education department and from a reputed NGO as members should be set up.

The recognition committee should visit the schools periodically, mostly the erring institutions as listed by the Chief Education Officer.

The school buildings should preferably be a ‘A’ class construction with brick/ stone masonry walls with RCC roofing. Where RCC roofing is not possible, only non-combustible fireproof, heat resistance materials should be used.

The 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

Conditional recognition/approval shall never be resorted to for any school

Safety measures as prescribed by the National Building Code of India-2005 be implemented by all government and private schools functioning in the country.

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