03 August 2004, The Hindu

By K. Kannan

NEW DELHI, AUG. 2. Uphaar, Dabwali, Tiruchi and now Kumbakonam. Fire safety does not seem to be high on the priority list of many buildings in the country with schools being no exception. The scant regard for safety norms has turned a majority of the schools in the country into a firebomb, says Soumi Home Roy, a researcher with CUTS Safety Watch, a premier consumer organisation working on consumer safety issues.

CUTS has called for a nation-wide alert for tightening rules and stricter enforcement of safety regulations in every school across the country. Though the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has formulated the National Building Code (NBC), which governs the design, safety and health aspects of buildings, these are hardly ever followed.

The NBC specifies rules and regulations regarding fire safety measures to be adopted in educational institutions. For example, students should be able to evacuate the building at the rate of one minute or less per floor. 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. Schools should carry out fire drills in accordance with fire safety plan at least once every three months. But educational institutions rarely conform to these standards and norms as evident from the gruesome tragedy at Kumbakonam.

“The reason behind this laxity is that the norms set up by the BIS under NBC are mere guidelines and can only become mandatory provisions if state governments adopt them through legislation”, says Roy. 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. While the State Government has ordered a judicial probe and it has been directed that all schools having thatched structures will have to be replaced with non-flammable material by this month-end, Roy noted that there is much more to do. “Nothing less than a miracle can save school children in case of a fire in most of the educational institutions in the country as most of them are veritable firetraps.”

Apart from running schools in dense localities, which pose difficulties for fire services to reach, 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.

Many schools are 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 are cooked with little concern for fire safety.

Safety norms are almost unheard of in most districts. In hill towns, many schools are housed in highly inflammable stone-cum-wooden buildings of the British vintage without conforming to any fire safety norms.

Fire protection regulations are not given any consideration by authorities while issuing licenses to schools. Thus, Roy on behalf of CUTS Safety Watch urged all the State governments to take a close look at every school to ensure that they are equipped to fight fire.

Roy opined that unless the implementation of the National Building Code is made mandatory, the situation would not improve.

Her recently published book “Is It Really Safe?” on different consumer safety articles, contains one article titled “Does your building follow fire safety norms?” which highlights that most builders flout this code without bothering to take a no-objection certificate from the fire brigade.

“Infernos are dangerous in all overcrowded locations where people assemble like cinema halls, auditoria, educational institutions, marriage halls, and even hotels or restaurants. Even after the Uphaar cinema tragedy, most of the buildings in the country do not comply with the NBC,” said Roy, adding it was high time that implementation of NBC was made mandatory to prevent any fire mishap in future.