It's 9 A.M, and four-year-old Vaishnavi is getting ready for her kindergarten class in a suburban Chennai school. In 30 minutes, she will share a 10 X 10 ft classroom with 60 other toddlers, remaining there until 3 pm. There is no playground to break the monotony of by-rote learning, and once the students step out of their classroom they will hit the road directly to return to their homes. And yes, her school has got the nod from the competent authorities and is a popular one in her suburb.

Vaishnavi's school is one of the 2983 matriculation schools in the state that has less than one acre of landholding. According to the S V Chittibabu Commission report (released in March 2003), nearly 65 percent of 1635 schools (Tamilnadu) that responded to the survey had less than one acre at their disposal for school buildings and a playground. One in four schools in the Matric stream remains unrecognised. About 43 percent of the schools had pucca buildings, the rest were either fully or partly kuchcha. Only 19 per cent of the boys and 28 per cent of the girls had access to "suitable" toilet facilities.

But for the devastating Kumbakonam fire, this report would have remained forgotten. Among the many recommendations from the Commission was one to fix uniform fees for the matric schools, but this was abandoned after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of managements' right to fix fees independently (TMA Pai vs. State of Karnataka). With one important part of the recommendations made redundant, the state government threw the rest of the commission's proposals out as well. But now, the death toll from the fire has forced some administrators to scrutinise private schooling in the state once more.

A Government order since the fire has ensured that dried palm fronds are off the roof. While the fire-hazard due to thatched roofs has been removed, a cross-section of educationists and child right activists believes there is more to safety than just fire-proofing. The problems in the system are much more fundamental, they point out.

In its July-August 2004 survey of six districts, the Tamilnadu Child Rights Protection Network found that 13 out of 171 schools surveyed functioned without any recognition. And 30 of the 36 schools in Thiruvarur district were roofless after the government order on removing thatched roofs! Of the 32 schools in Madurai district, 9 did not have playgrounds, 6 had no toilet facilities and many more had only rudimentary amenities. Potable water was not available in 12 schools. In Nagapattinam, one of the schools was in the passageway of a marriage hall and 19 of the school buildings were dilapidated. Twenty schools were without playgrounds and three private schools had fewer than 3 acres. Of the 61 schools sampled, 33 private and aided institutions have not registered with the government.

Private homes have given way to schools in Thanjavur district with classrooms measuring a little over 10x10 ft with more than 40 students occupying the space. Eighteen schools had no water and Government school students get water from shops and the neighbourhood. In Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts, 13 schools in total did not have protected water sources or toilet facilities. In Thiruvarur district, no school had playgrounds worth the mention.

Technically, none of these schools should have been in existence; and yet each had between 600 and 1500 students.

Acts, Rules, Codes

If you want to found a school in Tamilnadu, chances are you will probably be able to get away with little attention to safety.

The Tamil Nadu Education Rules is not statutory, but has necessary regulation for all schools under all kinds of managements, government and private. The Tamil Nadu Recognised Private Schools (Regulation) Act is statutory and applies to all private schools, be it elementary, middle, high or higher secondary school.

Both TNRPSA and TNER cover the basic infrastructure, both construction-wise and faculty-wise. However, there is no clear consensus on whether the Tamil Nadu Education Rules are still valid.

The TNRPS Act says that the management should obtain licence from the Revenue Department under the Tamil Nadu Public Buildings Licensing Act, 1965. Under this act, the school managements need certification from a PWD Engineer OR a Chartered Engineer. Since most civil Engineers are also chartered engineers, it tantamounts to self-certification. By bringing building licensing directly under TNRPS Act and its rules, the government could ensure PWD audit of structures.

In addition, elementary schools are governed by the Tamil Nadu Elementary Education Code. Schools in Matriculation, Anglo Indian, and other streams are governed by similar eponymous codes. Matriculation Code was drawn by a group of Matric school principals. Likewise for others. Loopholes abound in these rules, which are managements manipulate to get away with not providing adequate facilities.

For private schools, educationists believe the glaring loopholes can be plugged by unifying all the codes under the Tamil Nadu Recognised Private Schools (Regulation) Act.

 •  TN : Education Acts & Rules
 •  Karnataka: How fire-safe?
Status of regulation

The Tamil Nadu Education Rules spell out clearly the various criteria that school managements have to comply with to obtain recognition. According to the rules, elementary schools shall be established on a minimum of three acres and on five acres if the student strength exceeds 800. In case the school building has more than the ground floor and if the length of the school is less than 70 feet (21 metres), there shall be two stairways. If the length of the building is 100 feet (30 m), it shall have three - one at either end and one at the centre.

The Grant-in-aid Code mandates that for elementary schools at least 0.88 square metres should be provided as per-pupil-floor-space reaching up to 0.99 square metres for secondary schools. Windows should admit light and air and should not be more than 1.22 mts from the ground. The window area should not be less than one-fifth of the floor area and whenever possible the main lighting should be from the north.

Compliance with these rules, and those of the Tamil Nadu Public Buildings Act, would have ensured the Kumbakonam accident did not happen, said Mr Ossie Fernandes of Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation, a partner in the survey. If any school was found non-compliant, a competent authority constituted under these Rules could withdraw the recognition. Both testimonial evidence and commission reports have shown that a majority of the schools is in breach of the laws. Yet not one school has had its recognition revoked, Fernandes added.

Says Mr. Shanmuga Velayutham, Professor, Social Works Department, Loyola College: "... class-rooms should not be used as passage from one part of the building to another and their doors should open out to passages or verandahs so that children could be evacuated quickly in case of emergencies. High casualty in the Kumbakonam school fire was caused because all classes did not have clear exits to the outside."

Though in flagrant violation, the schools have managed to escape because of corruption in the system. Chronic shortage of inspection staff has also not helped the cause either, with their numbers far below the ideal of one inspector for every 40 schools.

A solution is imaginable - that the local bodies (panchayats and municipalities) issue building licence and monitor schools - but this is not implementable in Tamilnadu currently. While the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments had apportioned powers to local bodies to monitor schools, the governing law for local bodies, the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Rules, does not empower the panchayat to do so. The TNPR goes against the constitutional direction proposed in those amendments, but has gone unchallenged.

A variety of problems

In-depth surveys also have the tendency to uncover new dimensions that might not have been originally anticipated, but are related because they are all symptoms of the deep rooted larger malaise. Human rights activists are quick to link the unregulated growth in private schools to an increase in reportage of sexual abuse. "Take the case of the school in Pallavaram (a southern suburb of Chennai). The Physical Education Teacher, a man, had access to the girls' toilet, where he had frequently assaulted a succession of primary students and pre-teens, before a 10-year-old finally broke the silence. If the Inspectors from the Directorate of Matriculation schools visited the school, the institution would not have received any recognition [in the first place]," says Mr. Fernandes.

In 2003-04, Tamilnadu saw 97 children and young adolescents end their lives. The State Human Rights Commission took up the case of suicide by a class IX student Abinav, who committed suicide after his Math teacher disciplined him harshly for missing special class. Other reasons for suicides include pressure for donations, punishing schedules, physical violence and sexual abuse. "These are safety concerns. Will the Government go beyond replacing thatched roofs to reforming the system?" wonders Mr. Fernandes.

But previous attempts have been abortive. The state government setup a second commission, headed by former Director of School Education, A Muthukrishnan, to amend the Tamil Nadu Education Rules. Though that report was submitted in July 2003, its findings have not been made public or even placed in the state legislative assembly for discussion. One of its recommendations was to make corporal punishment illegal in schools.

Is it a matter of money?

Money, says Mr. Fernandes, is available in plenty with the state government, though it is not very clear how it is being spent. Every local body (for example the Chennai Corporation) already collects education cess, adding up to around Rs.5000 crore. "This money is to go towards maintenance of school buildings that come under their control. But from the disrepair that our government schools are in, this is obviously being siphoned off to other meet other expenses."

But the broader issue that is irksome to child rights activists is the dwindling state government's commitment to social sectors, especially education. The budgetary allocation for education in ratio to the GDP has hovered around the 3 percent mark. And of this miniscule portion, a huge chunk goes toward paying salaries. (Rs 3890.29 crore was the non-plan expenditure for 2004-05) while plan expenditure like upgrading schools and opening new ones garner only around 10 percent. Unless the spending on educational infrastructure is upped, the aim of free and universal primary education by 2007 will be unattainable, says Mr. Velayutham.

At the Centre, the Tenth Planning Commission is only too aware of the targets slipping away. Deadlines may be extended by a couple of years. In its mid-term appraisal, the Commission has said that the target of 100 percent enrolment in primary schools by 2003 and 100 percent retention by 2007 will not be possible under the SSA scheme. The reason again seems to be state government's inability to meet its financial commitment. (The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan scheme was to have had part funding from the centre, and this was to be gradually decreased as the state spending increased correspondingly.) The planning commission is now looking at various means to provide adequate support to the programme that it is not doomed because of financial constraints.

Another committee, another report

A third panel led by Justice Sampath is wrapping up its investigation in Kumbakonam and is expected to come up with suggestions in couple of months. Many other studies about the education system already exist and there is no serious talk of real reform; this dampens any optimism over one more study and its recommendations. Meanwhile, the estimated 30,000 private schools continue to exploit loopholes in the multitudes of laws dealing not only with safety and sanitation, but many academic issues - boards of examinations, medium of instruction, etc. - as well. For now, regulations are more likely to be ignored than complied with.