The recent fire in Kumbakonam sparked off debates and arguments on the safety of schools in the country. School and government authorities let out their old apology of being short of staff and resources. However incidents like these are not new.
In 1995, a fire at a marriage pandal in Dabwali, Haryana killed over 500 people, mostly children. The casualties were higher because of the stampede which ensued and because there was only one small gate at the entrance. The three accused are out on bail.
In 1997, the Uphaar grand Cinema caught fire, killing 60 and leaving many injured. While the Cinema had a license issued by the Delhi Police, it was the responsibility of the Delhi Fire Services to certify after periodic inspections that the premises were safe from fire hazards and that the mandatory safety measures and fire alarms were in place. The Uphaar case is still sub judice.
In January 2004, a marriage Hall in Tamilnadu caught fire, killing 62 people and injuring 45. The intense heat from the video flash gun, set to fire the decorative materials on the thatched roof of the pandal. There was also a stampede as people tried to flee through a narrow staircase in a corner.
A culture of apathy
Responsibility for these and many such incidents cannot be put on any one person or organization. Almost all such incidents have a commonality -- the blatant disregard for rules and regulations. In Kumbakonam, the school in question was allowed to run for several years in violation of the necessary laws the National Building Code, the TN educational code and other rules.
Second, these are not isolated cases. If we look around us closely, we see a barefaced lack of concern for safety in our daily lives. Whether it is helmet less driving, talking on the cell phone while riding, huge shopping malls which disregard the very basics of byelaws, we never make it our business to follow the rules, ask questions, and look beyond the obvious.
Governments ride on this indifference and this is, in many cases, the cause for tragedies such as Kumbakonam. The Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE, Oxford University Press, 1999) showed that for the sample of schools surveyed in 5 states, 52% had no playgrounds, 89% no drinking water, 59% had no access to charts and maps and 77% no access to libraries. The lack of fire safety must be seen in this light. Despite this, though, the rural and urban poor are willing to do anything to send their children to school.
The National Building Code lays down a set of minimum provisions designed to protect the safety of the public. The regulations can be adopted immediately or enacted for use by various departments, municipal administrations and public bodies. Part IV of the code relates specifically to fire protection and Clause 9 to 'Requirements of Educational buildings' provides guidelines on fire-safe building designs. However, these are only guidelines. They become mandatory provisions only if state governments adopt the code through legislation.
However, in the case of Bangalore, the building byelaws already require that buildings be planned, designed and constructed to ensure adequate fire safety to the property and inhabitants. The byelaws state that this shall be carried out in accordance with Part IV Fire Protection of the National Building Code of India. The byelaws also state that the fire fighting requirements, arrangements and installations required in building conform to the provisions of the same code.
While the byelaws are mandatory, there are no specific details for educational institutions. Currently:
- Only high rise buildings need clearance from the
- All CBSE/ICSE schools -- which have a pantry, computers, gas connection,
and chemistry labs -- need clearance. But anecdotal evidence indicates that
conformance is rare.
- All state syllabus schools (i.e non CBSE/ICSE) do not need a clearance from the fire department even though they might be having a pantry (kitchens for the mid day meal scheme), gas connections, computers, and chemistry labs.
This lack of clarity leaves room for educational institutions to bypass the NBC and hence the poor enforcement. And in the absence of a certified design document and sometimes even basic architectural drawing (which are mostly lost after a few years of construction), the designers are completely unaccountable.
How FIRE safe are Bangalore schools?
In the wake of the Kumbakonam tragedy, the Environment Support Group (ESG), a Bangalore based NGO, organized a discussion on How FIRE safe are Bangalore Schools? This was aimed bringing together concerned individuals and organizations to discuss the state of Bangalore schools and how safe they are in terms of fire safety. The discussion was attended by senior officials of the Karnataka Fire Services Department, representatives of the BMP and the state's education department, students, teachers, parents and representatives of city-based NGOs.
State Fire Services
The Karnataka Fire Services Department is responsible for ensuring fire safety in the state, but the department does not have the powers to inspect and enforce fire-safety regulations on any building on its own. They come into the picture only when a city/town municipal corporation (BMP in the case of Bangalore) approaches them for fire clearance certificates in case of a new high-rise building. The department scrutinizes the building plan and if approved issues a no-objection certificate when the building is ready for occupation.
Also, the fire department suffer from a 50% vacancy in force. Nationwide, there is a deficiency of fire station services. Bangalore for example has 11 fire stations against a recommended 140, by central government norms. (The Centre's Standing Fire Advisory Council directs that every town with a population of 50,000 and above should have a fire station). Stations are equipped with ladders that can reach 37 metres in height while the tallest buildings in Bangalore scale to about 80 metres.
Despite its infrastructural deficiencies, the fire department runs a programme called SAFE (Students Association of Fire Education) imparting fire safety training to students. Any person can be a part of this program and can undertake training for Fire safety. Ironically it has few takers with only about 100 volunteers, although Bangalore has well over 4000 schools. Regular fire drills and training of teachers and students being an important aspect of fire safety are in many cases, able to avoid mishaps turning to tragedies of enormous proportion. More on the SAFE program can be accessed at www.karnatakafireservices.gov.in.
Fire audit ongoing
The fire department reports that it, along with the state's education department is currently undertaking a fire audit of all schools in Karnataka, government run and private. At the ESG organized discussion, Mr. M N Reddi, Inspector General, Fire and Emergency services, Karnataka said that the audit will assess if the schools have the basic infrastructure in place for fire safety. However little is known on what action will be taken on schools which are not found having basic safety infrastructure. Given the extreme shortage of staff and resources in the department, Mr.Reddi could not commit to a time frame. The Fire department is also working on a legal framework to make violation of fire safety rules punishable by law. It has also called upon school managements to prepare themselves for emergency situations.
The seriousness of the fire department at the ESG organized meeting contrasted with the lacklustre involvement of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (Bangalore's city municipal corporation). On being invited for the discussion, the Special Commissioner, Mr. Subhash Chandra said that he could not think of anybody who could attend this discussion. Despite repeated efforts of ESG to reach high-level officials at the BMP and the state government's education department, only junior officers attended the discussion. They did not have the authority to make firm commitments, but admitted failure in not being able to take action against schools which do not conform to the building byelaws. The municipal officers however admitted that in many cases, even if they did want to take action against erring schools, pressure from various lobbies made their work difficult.
ESG has articulated the need for having at least one mandatory representation from each school in Bangalore to undertake training at the fire departments SAFE program.