05 August 2004, Udayavani (Karnataka’s Daily)

New Delhi, August 5: A premier consumer organisation working on consumer safety issues has called for a nation-wide alert for tightening rules and stricter enforcement of safety regulations in schools across the country.

Though the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has formulated the National Building Code (NBC) that governs design, safety and health aspects of buildings, they were hardly followed, said Soumi Roy, a Safety Watch researcher with Consumer Unity and Trust Society.

NBC specifies rules and regulations regarding fire safety measures to be adopted by educational institutions according to it students should be able to evacuate the building at the rate of one minute or less per floor.

Exit (stairways) of at least half-metre width should be provided for every 25 students. All institutions should have basic fire-fighting equipment like carbon dioxide cylinders, water and sand buckets and should know their right application, the NBC elaborates adding that schools should carry out fire drills in accordance with the fire safety plan at least once every three months.

But educational institutions rarely conform to these standards and norms as is evident from the Kumbakonam tragedy, Roy said.

The Reason behind this laxity was that the norms set up by the BIS under NBC were mere guidelines and could only become mandatory provisions if state governments adopted them through legislation, she said.

The fire at Kumbakonam in which more than 90 children perished was undoubtedly due to “criminal negligence” of the school management compounded by “slack supervision” of education department officials, she added.

The State Government thereafter ordered a judicial probe.

All schools having thatched structures would have to be replaced with non-flammable material by this month-end. One crore special package for the victims was also announced.

However, according to Roy much more was required to be done and nothing less than a miracle could save school children in case of a fire in most of the educational institutions in the country as most of them were veritable firetraps.

Apart from running schools in dense localities, which pose difficulties for the fire services to navigate, in case of an emergency, the floor space, seating arrangements, ventilation, lighting facilities, aeration, the width of staircase and emergency escape routes, if any, leave a lot to be desired, she said.

Many schools were located in dilapidated wooden buildings with fire extinguishers out of order and with old electric wirings. In hundreds of schools in South India, mid-day meals were cooked with little concern for fire safety, she added.

Safety norms were almost unheard of in most district schools. In hill towns, many schools were housed in highly inflammable stone-cum-wooden buildings of the British vintage without conforming to any fire safety norms. Fire protection regulations were not given any consideration by authorities while issuing licenses to schools, Roy said.

The fire safety researcher urged all state governments to take a close look at schools to ensure that they were equipped to combat fire.

Most builders flouted this code with impunity without bothering to take a no-objection certificate from the fire brigade and unless the implementation of the National Building Code was made mandatory, the situation would not improve, Roy felt.

Infernos were dangerous in all overcrowded locations where people assemble like cinema halls, auditorium, educational institutions, marriage halls, and even hotels or restaurants, Roy opined.

Even after the Uphaar cinema tragedy, most of the buildings in the country did not comply with the NBC and it was high time that implementation of NBC was made mandatory to prevent any fire mishap in future, she said hoping that the Kumbakonam tragedy would serve as an eye opener for the school authorities across the nation.