Avinash Mehrotra Vs.
Union of India & Ors.  INSC 719 (13 April 2009)
IN THE SUPREME COURT
OF INDIA CIVIL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO.483 OF 2004
Avinash Mehrotra ...... Petitioner Versus Union of India & Others ......
Dalveer Bhandari, J.
important Public Interest Litigation relates to a fire swept through the Lord
Krishna Middle School in District Kumbakonam in the city of Madras, Tamil Nadu.
The fire started in the school's kitchen while cooks were preparing mid-day
meal. In order to protect the rights of life and education guaranteed to all
school going children under Articles 21 and 21-A, the petitioner has prayed
this Court to bring about safer school conditions.
is alleged that Lord Krishna Middle School is one of the thousands of private
schools that have sprung up in response to drastic cuts in government spending
on education. This building houses more than 900 students in a crowded,
thatched-roof building with a single entrance, a narrow stairway, windowless
classrooms and only one entrance and exit.
fire had sparked by dry coconut leaves used as firewood in a nearby makeshift
kitchen with thatched-roof.
The fire had started
when the cooks were preparing mid-day meal under a Mid-day meal scheme popular
in Tamil Nadu. It is alleged that the ventilation of the entire school building
was extremely poor with only cement-perforated windows. It took sufficient time
for the fire fighters on a crane to break these windows and rescue the few
children they could with severe burn injuries. The kitchen fire rose so high
that the thatched roof of the classrooms caught fire and the blazing roof
supported by bamboo poles collapsed on the school children and most of them died
on the spot.
nearby residents started dousing the flames and trying to rescue children. The
school's narrow, steep stairs and few exists apparently hampered those efforts.
The crowd of volunteer rescuers ended up blocking the main door as they tried
to rules, a government-certified engineer is supposed to visit these schools
once every two years and issue a "stability certificate" if the
building is found to be in good condition and all safety precautions are met.
The engineer can refuse to issue the certificate if he finds the safety
measures inadequate, losing the school its licence to operate.
is mentioned in the petition that the investigations have revealed that the
school in Kumbakonam was last inspected three years ago. The school had a
thatched roof in severe violation of building laws. It even had a thatched kitchen
close to the thatched classrooms. The fire officials had described the school
as a death trap. They said that the victims had no chance of escape when the
fire erupted as they were doing their lessons on the top floor. It is alleged
that the incidence of Kumbakonam District is not the first of its kind.
In the year 1995, a
school prize-giving ceremony in a Northern Indian town turned to tragedy when a
fire broke out, killing nearly 400 people, many of them children and teenagers.
The fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in the town of Dabwali in
the state of Haryana, about 150 miles from the National Capital.
violation of school safety regulations continues in the entire country even
four decades after the government pledged to enforce them after a private
school building in Madurai caves in, killing 35 school girls and injuring 137.
petitioner has prayed that he has filed this petition with a specific objective
5 (1) each and every
child of this country can receive good education free from fear of safety and
security, (2) to ensure that more stringent rules and regulations are framed
keeping in mind the safety of the students, (3) to ensure that such standards
of safety are at par with the highest standards set up anywhere in the world;
and (4) to ensure that such standards are in fact enforced regularly for the
safety and protection of children in classrooms across the country.
petitioner has submitted that the concerned building by-laws and rules are not
followed by most of the schools in the country causing serious safety hazards
for the children.
this petition, it is prayed that along with the existing rules regarding
safety, some additional rules be framed to strengthen the laws to protect the
children in school buildings in cases of fire and other kinds of emergencies.
In the petition, the petitioner has prayed for:
(i) Developing a manual
with fire safety procedures, and other safety precautions and distributing them
in schools. The manual can include the ways fires can be prevented through
careful design, management, and maintenance practice; and ideas for limiting
fire damage, and other calamities. Marking clear and safe emergency
evacuations. Making sure that all exists are marked clearly and that there are
no objects obstructing the Entry and Exit of the school building.
(ii) Ensuring that
the kitchen in the precincts of the school has adequate safety mechanisms. Not
keeping any hazardous, inflammable material in the school precincts.
Not making school
buildings with inflammable material like thatched roof, or having any exposed
wires in the school.
hazardous areas from the main school.
(iv) Ensuring that
the schools are not exceeding the limit of the students it can admit in
accordance with the facilities available for each school, ensuring proper
facilities like safe drinking water, toilets, first aid boxes, proper
ventilation, lighting etc is available to the students and the teachers.
(v) Schools must take
appropriate safety measures and an emergency response plan that delineates
staff responsibilities, communication modes, and training and updating procedures
for all members of the faculty, staff and students. Assigning duties to
teachers in case of an emergency like fire, earthquake, flood, a mob attack etc
and training the staff to ensure that all safety precautions are followed.
(vi) Fire insurance
coverage should be made mandatory for all schools. This will also help as all
insurance companies will definitely inspect the school premises before agreeing
to provide insurance cover, thereby ensuring adherence to the highest safety
standards by the schools.
schools to have proper safety measures in case of using boilers, kitchen,
ensuring that there is no leakage while using or storing fuel, and that it is
outside the reach of children. All school buildings must install fire
extinguishing equipment and sensor alarms in case of fires. Such alarms must be
able to automatically intimate the nearest local fire station so that their
response times are much quicker in case of fire.
(viii) Regular fire
drills to make students aware of what to do in case of a fire emergency.
(ix) The States
should deal with all aspects of safety within schools pertaining to classrooms,
kitchen, laboratories, and libraries and outside schools relating to
playgrounds, swimming pools and field trips.
(x) There should be a
policy prescribing safety audits in all schools vide which an assessment of the
extent to which the stipulated safety procedures for a particular area/task are
followed can be done. Audits can be used to identify weaknesses in safety norms
and check compliance with set standards and reinforce positive safe behaviour.
(xi) The local
authorities in both urban and rural areas should be given specific directions
with regard to the safety measures by the respective State Government.
the petition, it is averred that the State is duty bound to protect and secure
lives of students across the country by ensuring the minimum safety standards.
The State is liable to promulgate policies, which ensure the implementation of
the safety laws and procedures laid down. The State must ensure that the
government-certified engineer visits each and every school at least once in two
years and issued a `stability certificate'. if the building is found to be in
good condition and 10 all safety precautions are met. There should be strict
supervision on those engineers who can issue these kinds of certificates. It is
alleged that most of the Indian private schools in district towns are dull,
claustrophobic, cramped and often have derelict structures with no fire safety
systems, playgrounds or libraries. Most of these private schools in the
district towns are located in a warren of congested lanes and school
authorities often lock the gates when classes are on to keep children from
slipping out of the school. Most of the schools in the villages and small towns
are still made of thatched roofs made from coconut leaves or other cheap and
easily available materials to avoid the cost of construction in flagrant
violation of the building laws.
is prayed in the petition that a committee of jurists, legal experts and
lawyers be constituted to formulate a comprehensive report in a time bound plan
for carrying out reforms in the safety standards as prescribed in the schools
and to direct all the schools to implement the plan, alternately to come
forward with their own plan for providing safety measures in the schools. It is
further prayed that this Court should evolve model safety standards as a part
of Article 21 and for free and fair exercise of fundamental rights under
Articles 14, 15 and 19 of the Constitution of India.
this petition, we are called upon to determine what, if any, safety standards
schools should have and how, if at all, schools have not met those standards.
National Building Code of India, 2005, promulgated by the Bureau of Indian
Standards, provides detailed instructions on how to construct fire-safe
buildings. Tables and drawings set standard for schools particularly, including
number and type of fire extinguishers, quantity of water necessary for a proper
fire suppression system, and many more, providing an engineer-tested,
nationally applicable set of standards that our schools could follow. In the
introductory materials for the Code, the Bureau of Indian Standards affirms the
petitioner's claim in this case:
"The hazards of
fire in educational buildings can be considerably lowered by adoption of
certain predetermined fire safety measures with regard to 12 proper planning
of buildings, choice of proper materials and components, electrical equipments
and making suitable provisions for fire detection and suppression system."
Court issued notice to the Union of India, State Governments and the Union
Territories. Replies and counter affidavits have been received from almost all
the State Governments and the Union Territories and also the Union of India.
This Court appointed Mr. Colin Gonsalves, learned Senior Advocate as Amicus
Curiae. He also suggested some guidelines which need to be followed by all
schools in the country.
States and Territories have filed affidavits in this Court detailing the
current safety of their schools and plans for improvement. The States admit
that many schools do not meet self-determined safety standards, let alone the
more rigorous standards of the National Building Code. The affidavits generally
focus on plans for improvement, rather than schools' current conditions,
because much work remain. Where States have provided detailed counts of schools
and installed safety features, it emerges that thousands of schools lack any
fire suppression equipment.
schools do not have adequate emergency egress or non-inflammable roofs.
Unfortunately, most States failed to provide any quantitative data in their
Instead these States
filed vague plans for future renovations and piecemeal schemes to improve
schools safety. Little technical advice informs some of the plans, and few have
any admitted force of law or fail-safe or follow-up mechanism from the State
we applaud States' efforts to improve schools, we find that States have done
too little, too late. With the guidance of the National Building Code and
affidavits in this case, we view Mr. Gonsalves's brief as crystallizing a
minimum set of safety standards for schools. By their own admission, States
have not met these standards and they have welcomed this Court's guidance in
achieving improvement. We will consider in more detail the exact standards
required and relief 14 sought later in this view. It is clearly borne out from
the affidavits filed by the respondents that even the basic fire extinguishing
equipments have not been installed in most of the schools. Majority of the
schools do not have emergency exits. The schools must realize and properly
comprehend the importance of the fire safety equipments, but unfortunately most
of the schools do not have fire extinguishing equipments and consequently, the
schools are not following the minimum safety standards prescribed by the
Building Code, the Bureau of Indian Standards.
best intentions and frequent agreements, these codes and safety standards
rarely bind builders in law or practice. State or local governments must enact
Building Codes before any may have the force of law. Some Building Codes exist
in law, but few states or municipalities have enacted a standard as rigorous as
the National Building Code.
often then moots the enacted code's effectiveness, no matter the Code's intent,
whether fire safety officials, routinely speak to the need for meaningful
standards with real enforcement.
the petition, the petitioner does not seek damages or court's finding on
culpability. The main intention of filing this petition is to protect against
similar future tragedies by improving the conditions of the schools in our
occupies an important place in our Constitution and culture. There has been
emphasis on free and compulsory education for children in this country for a
long time. There is a very strong historical perspective. The Hunter Commission
in 1882-83, almost 125 years ago, recommended Universal Education in India. It
proposed to make education compulsory for the children.
Government of India Act, 1935 provided that "education should be made free
and compulsory for both boys and girls." While debating in a bill in
Imperial Legislation Council in 1911, Shri Gopal Krishna Gokhale strongly advocated
that elementary education should be both compulsory and free.
original Framers of the Constitution placed free and compulsory education in
the Directive Principles. The un- amended Article 45 provided that:
"The State shall
endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of
this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until
they complete the age of fourteen years."
Kothari Commission on Education set up by the Government of India in 1966
strongly recommended free and compulsory education for children up to 14 years.
The Commission observed that there is no other way for the poor to climb their
way out of this predicament.
occupies a sacred place within our Constitution and culture. Article 21A of the
Constitution, adopted in 2002, codified this Court's holding in Unni Krishnan,
J.P. & Others v. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors. (1993) 1 SCC 645, in
which we established a right to education. Parliament did not merely affirm
that right; the Amending Act placed the right to education within the
Constitution's set of Fundamental Rights, the most cherished principles of our
society. As the Court observed in Unni Krishnan (supra), para 8:
Poet Valluvar whose Tirukkural will surpass all ages and transcend all
religious said of education:
excellence of wealth that none destroy;
To man nought else
affords reality of joy."
today remains liberation - a tool for the betterment of our civil institutions,
the protection of our civil liberties, and the path to an informed and
as now, we recognize education's "transcendental importance" in the
lives of individuals and in the very survival of our Constitution and Republic.
In the years since the inclusion of Article 21A, we have clarified that the
right to education attaches to the individual as an inalienable human 18
right. We have traced the broad scope of this right in R. D. Upadhyay v. State
of A.P. & Ors. AIR 2006 SC 1946, holding that the State must provide
education to all children in all places, even in prisons, to the children of
prisoners. We have also affirmed the inviolability of the right to education.
Commission of India v. St. Mary's School & Ors. (2008) 2 SCC 390, we
refused to allow the State to take teachers from the classroom to work in polling
places. While the democratic State has a mandate to conduct elections, the
mundane demands of instruction superseded the State's need to staff polling
places. Indeed, the democratic State may never reach its greatest potential
without a citizenry sufficiently educated to understand civil rights and social
duties, Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors., (1997) 10 SCC 549.
These conclusions all follow from our opinion in Unni Krishnan. Education
remains essential to the life of the individual, as much as health and dignity,
and the State must provide it, comprehensively and completely, in order to
satisfy its highest duty to citizens.
other fundamental rights, the right to education places a burden not only on
the State, but also on the parent or guardian of every child, and on the child
herself. Article 21A, which reads as follows, places one obligation primarily
on the State:
"The State shall
provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to
fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine."
28. By contrast,
Article 51A(k), which reads as follows, places burden squarely on the parents:
duties - it shall be the duty of every citizen of India who is the parent or
guardian to provide opportunities for education to his child or, as the case
may be, ward between the age of six and fourteen years."
Constitution directs both burdens to achieve one end: the compulsory education
of children, free from the fetters of cost, parental obstruction, or State
inaction. The two articles also balance the relative burdens on parents and the
State. Parents sacrifice for the education of their children, by sending them
to school for hours of the day, but only with 20 a commensurate sacrifice of
the State's resources. The right to education, then, is more than a human or
fundamental right. It is a reciprocal agreement between the State and the
family, and it places an affirmative burden on all participants in our civil
Court has routinely held that another fundamental right to life encompasses
more than a breath and a heartbeat.
reflecting on the meaning of "personal liberty" in Articles 19 and
21, we have held that "that `personal liberty' is used in the article as a
compendious term to include within itself all the varieties of rights which go
to makeup the `personal liberties' of man." Kharak Singh v. State of U.P.
& Ors. AIR 1963 SC 1295, para 16. Similarly, we must hold that educating a
child requires more than a teacher and a blackboard, or a classroom and a book.
The right to education requires that a child study in a quality school, and a
quality school certainly should pose no threat to a child's safety. We reached
a similar conclusion, on the comprehensive guarantees implicit in the right to
education, only recently in our opinion in Ashoka Kumar Thakur v. Union of
India & Ors. (2008) 6 SCC 1.
Constitution likewise provides meaning to the word "education" beyond
its dictionary meaning. Parents should not be compelled to send their children
to dangerous schools, nor should children suffer compulsory education in
unsound buildings. Likewise, the State's reciprocal duty to parents begins with
the provision of a free education, and it extends to the State's regulatory
power. No matter where a family seeks to educate its children, the State must
ensure that children suffer no harm in exercising their fundamental right and
civic duty. States thus bear the additional burden of regulation, ensuring that
schools provide safe facilities as part of a compulsory education.
the instant case, we have no need to sketch all the contours of the
Constitution's guarantees, so we do not. We merely hold that the right to
education incorporates the provision of safe schools.
Court in Ashoka Kumar Thakur's case (supra) observed as under:
"It has become
necessary that the Government set a realistic target within which it must fully
implement Article 21A regarding free and compulsory education for the entire
country. The Government should suitably revise budget allocations for
education. The priorities have to be set correctly.
The most important
fundamental right may be Article 21A, which, in the larger interest of the
nation, must be fully implemented. Without Article 21A, the other fundamental
rights are effectively rendered meaningless. Education stands above other
rights, as one's ability to enforce one's fundamental rights flows from one's
This is ultimately
why the judiciary must oversee Government spending on free and compulsory
view of the importance of Article 21A, it is imperative that the education
which is provided to children in the primary schools should be in the
environment of safety.
view of what has happened in Lord Krishna Middle School in District Kumbakonam
and other incidents which have been enumerated in the preceding paragraphs, it
has become imperative that each school must follow the bare minimum safety
standards, in addition to the compliance of the National Building Code of
India, 2005, in particular Part IV - Fire & Life Safety and the Code of
Practice of Fire Safety in Educational Institutions (IS 14435:1997) of the
Bureau of Indian Standards. The said safety standards are enumerated
3.1 FIRE SAFETY
MEASURES IN SCHOOLS:
i. Provision of
adequate capacity and numbers of fire extinguishers of ISI marks to be provided
in eye- catching spots in each block of the school.
ii. First Aid kits
and necessary medicines should be readily available in the school.
iii. Provision of
water tank and separate piping from the tank with hose reel to the ground floor
and first floor.
iv. Fire fighting
training to all teachers and students from X to XII standards.
24 v. Fire Task
Force in every school comprising of Head of the institution, two teachers /
staff members and one member from the Fire and Rescue Department should be
constituted. The Fire & Rescue Department member shall monitor and make
fire safety plan and conduct inspections once in every three months.
vi. Display of
emergency telephone numbers and list of persons to be contacted on the notice
board and other prominent places.
vii. Mock drills to
be conducted regularly. Fire alarm to be provided in each floor and for rural
schools separate long bell arrangement in case of emergency.
viii. All old
electrical wiring and equipment shall be replaced with ISI mark equipments and
routine maintenance conducted by the School Management in consultation with the
Fire and Rescue Department.
ix. No High Tension
lines should run inside or in close proximity to the school. Steps must be
taken to shift them if they are already there.
x. The Fire and
Rescue Department shall frame guidelines with "DOS and DON'Ts' for schools
and issue a fitness certificate, which shall be renewed periodically.
3.2 TRAINING OF
SCHOOL TEACHERS & OTHER STAFF:
i. The teachers along
with other staff shall be trained to handle safety equipment, initiate
emergency evacuations and protect their students in the event of fire and other
emergencies by the Fire and Rescue Department.
ii. They shall also
be trained in providing emergency first-aid treatment.
iii. There shall be a
School Safety Advisory Committee and an Emergency Response Plan drafted by the
Committee in approval and consultation with the concerned Fire & Rescue
Response Drills conducted at regular intervals to train the students as well as
the school staff.
v. All schools to
observe Fire Safety Day on 14th of April every year with awareness programs and
fire safety drills in collaboration with the Fire and Rescue Department.
27 3.3 SCHOOL
i. The school
buildings shall preferably be a `A' Class construction with brick / stone
masonry walls with RCC roofing. Where it is not possible to provide RCC roofing
only non-combustible fireproof heat resistance materials should be used.
ii. 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
iii. The School
building shall be free from inflammable and toxic materials, which if
necessary, should be stored away from the school building.
iv. The staircases,
which act as exits or escape routes, shall adhere to provisions specified in
the National Building Code of India 2005 to ensure quick evacuation of
v. The orientation of
the buildings shall be in such a way that proper air circulation and lighting
is available with open space all round the building as far as possible.
vi. Existing school
buildings shall be provided with additional doors in the main entrances as well
as the class rooms if required. The size of the main exit and classroom doors
shall be enlarged if found inadequate.
vii. School buildings
have to be insured against fire and natural calamities with Group Insurance of
viii. Kitchen and
other activities involving use of fire shall be carried out in a secure and
safe location away from the main school building.
ix. All schools shall
have water storage tanks.
3.4 CLEARANCES &
i. Every School shall
have a mandatory fire safety inspection by the Fire and Rescue Services
Department followed by issuance of a `no objection certificate' to the School
as a mandatory requirement for granting permission for establishing or
continuation of a School.
i. An Inspection Team
consisting of experts like a Civil Engineer, a Health Officer, a Revenue
Officer, a Psychologist, a Fire Officer, a local body officer and a development
officer besides the educational authorities shall carry inspection and
assessment of infrastructural facilities before the commencement of each
academic year. The Team shall submit its Inspection Report to the concerned
district Chief Educational Officer.
iii. The building
plans for schools shall be prepared only by a Government certified engineer and
the PWD Executive Engineer concerned should inspect the building and award a
structural stability certificate.
Certificates shall be issued by the State or Central Government Engineers only
and shall be mandatory for granting permission for establishing or continuation
of a School.
iv. In every
district, one Recognition Committee headed by a retired judge shall be
constituted. Officials from Revenue Department, Public Works Department, Fire
Service, Electricity Board, Health and Education Department, a reputed NGO
shall be members. They shall visit the schools periodically or at least the
erring institutions as listed by the Chief Education Officer. v. Conditional
recognition / approval shall never by resorted to for any school.
this petition, we need not take any action contrary to government policy to
fulfill the Constitution's mandate. Union and State officials have already
filed wide-ranging plans to improve school safety. Along with the National
Building Code, a combination of the better parts of these plans would bring the
nation's schools to an adequate level of safety. States have also expressed
enthusiasm for reform and some have asked this Court expressly for direction.
States have already begun implementation. The most forward thinking States have
enacted and enforced the National Building Code in their schools. Often these
States have also created, empowered and funded a state-wide emergency response
office. The coordinated efforts and concentration of knowledge in these
administrative units make States better able to prepare for emergencies, as
much as to respond once the problem has started. For example, the State of
Gujarat has established such an emergency management office. Having already
settled building codes and 32 other large issues, the State can focus on other
aspects of emergency management. With the assistance of outside experts,
Gujarat recently created a colouring book to teach children how to respond to
emergencies. On a smaller scale, but no less vital, in the Union Territory of
Pondicherry, administrators replaced all thatched roofs and allocated an
additional Rs.500 lakhs to build pucca classrooms. Some States have counted
their schools and know which require repairs; they provided these details in
their affidavits along with detailed plans for improvement. We are encouraged
by the agreement shared among States that safety must improve.
Our order should
provide additional stimulus for the general aims of the States' already agreed
the end, we should need to do little but enforce existing laws and encourage
States in their own well- intentioned safety programmes. However, in the years
since the fire at the Lord Krishna Middle School, some States have moved slowly
and safety standards have varied in quality across States. These delays and
variations have subjected millions more school children to danger from fire,
earthquakes and other causes, when simple enhancements could offer much greater
protection. Articles 21 and 21-A of the Constitution require that India's
school children receive education in safe schools. In order to give effect to
the provisions of the Constitution, we must ensure that India's schools adhere
to basic safety standards without further delay.
is the fundamental right of each and every child to receive education free from
fear of security and safety. The children cannot be compelled to receive
education from an unsound and unsafe building.
view of what happened in Lord Krishna Middle School in District Kumbakonam
where 93 children were burnt alive and several similar incidences had happened
in the past, therefore, it has become imperative to direct that safety measures
as prescribed by the National Building Code of India, 2005 be implemented by
all government and private schools functioning in our country.
We direct that:- (i)
Before granting recognition or affiliation, the concerned State Governments and
Union Territories are directed to ensure that the buildings are safe and secured
from every angle and they are constructed according to the safety norms
incorporated in the National Building Code of India.
(ii) All existing
government and private schools shall install fire extinguishing equipments
within a period of six months.
(iii) The school
buildings be kept free from inflammable and toxic material. If storage is
inevitable, they should be stored safely.
(iv) Evaluation of
structural aspect of the school may be carried out periodically. We direct that
the concerned engineers and officials must strictly follow the National
Building Code. The safety certificate be issued only after proper inspection.
Dereliction in duty
must attract immediate disciplinary action against the concerned officials.
training be imparted to the staff and other officials of the school to use the
fire extinguishing equipments.
Education Secretaries of each State and Union Territories are directed to file
an affidavit of compliance of this order within one month after installation of
fire extinguishing equipments.
this petition on 07.12.2009 to ensure compliance of this order.
(Lokeshwar Singh Panta)