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Tamil Nadu: Child safety hypocrisy

EducationWorld September 12 | Education News EducationWorld

Although the southern seaboard state of Tamil Nadu (pop. 72 million) prides itself for its high academic standards and quality of schools, its school safety record is the mirror opposite of its academic attainments. Almost a decade ago on July 16, 2004, the state’s appalling child safety record hit national headlines when 93 primary school children were burnt to death in the town of Kumbakonam, because of total disregard of child safety rules and regulations by the school management.

Since then after initial indignation, furore and brave statements of intent from the state government to strictly enforce school safety regulations, not much has changed at ground zero level. On July 25, six-year-old Shruthi Sethumadhavan was run over by the rear wheels of her school bus after she slipped through a hole beneath her seat. On August 16, M. Ranjan (10) a student of the highly regarded Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan School, Chennai, drowned in the school swimming pool despite the presence of lifeguards and coaches.

According to media reports, Shruthi’s death was caused by negligence of a government RTO (regional transport officer) and the school management. The bus in which Shruthi, a class II student of Zion Matriculation Higher Secondary School, was commuting to school had a gaping hole under her seat covered by a cardboard which kept shifting as the bus sped ahead. Shruthi slipped through the hole and was crushed to death under the rear wheels of the bus. Shockingly, an RTO had certified the roadworthiness and safety of the school bus a fortnight earlier on July 9. Taking cognizance of media reports, the first bench of the Madras high court suo motu summoned the school authorities and transport officials who issued the fitness certificate of the bus, to appear in court. As is customary, seven people were arrested, of whom three have been granted bail.

In the case of Ranjan, a class IV student of the prestigious CBSE-affiliated Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan,  there are conflicting reports. According to eye witnesses, 30-35 students were in the small pool designed for only 15 people and the coaches had been negligent.

The intelligentsia in Tamil Nadu and Chennai is not surprised by recurring tragedies born out of official and public apathy towards child safety rules. There is virtual unanimity that many more such tragedies are waiting to happen. For instance, most of the state’s 52,303 government and corporation schools are in pathetic condition, and lack proper buildings, drinking water, toilets, electricity and safety systems including fire extinguishers, regarded as luxuries.

“Private school managements have to be more vigilant and take responsibility for untoward incidents happening inside the school, and all private and government schools which provide hostel facilities should monitor the premises. Strict action has to be taken against those who violate safety norms, so that such violations are not repeated,” says Andal Damodaran, vice president, Indian Council for Child Welfare, Tamil Nadu, in a typical after-the-event homily.

Although it’s not politically correct to say so, there’s a conspiracy of silence across Indian society on the issue of child safety. Driven by a strong sense of entitlement even the educated middle class is unwilling to pay the extra rupee for child safety, preferring to blame school managements and bus operators working on wafer-thin margins. With the Supreme Court consistently maintaining that education provision is necessarily a charitable activity, the notion that all private schools are “minting money”, and therefore their promoters and managements must invest heavily in child safety has permeated the middle class mindset. “Private schools have become commercial enterprises that compromise on students’ safety to cut costs. Most parents who send their children to private schools are not aware of the infrastructure or quality of education they provide, nor are parent-teacher associations encouraged,” says Prema Rajagopalan, associate professor in the humanities and social sciences faculty of Madras University.

Another conspiracy of silence is on the issue of the legal system imposing fines and/or awarding substantial damages to parents for  negligence of school managements. While in developed democratic countries, courts award heavy damages for institutional negligence, the imposition of court fees and the law’s delay has made the law of torts under which damages are awarded for personal injury, a dead letter in India. “Families of accident victims are unwilling to file civil suits because litigation is expensive and time consuming and they can’t be sure they will get justice within a reasonable time,” confirms C. Umashankar, a Chennai-based advocate of 23 years standing.

In the circumstances it’s hardly surprising that when there’s a tragedy in middle class and elite education institutions, there are many lamentations and statements of intent. But soon the indignation wanes, and with neither the parents community nor the establishment or the court prepared to invest in child safety, it’s back to business as usual.

Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)  

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