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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 July, 2004, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
India's claustrophobic classrooms
Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online, Madras

A burned-out classroom after a school fire in Kumbakonam, India
There were limited escape routes from the school's classrooms
The school which caught fire in southern India's Tamil Nadu state on Friday was a curious three-storey building, part concrete and part thatched with highly inflammable coconut leaves.

The crowded 900-student private school was also sandwiched between two residential houses on a congested street.

It had a single entrance and a narrow stairway.

No wonder then that when the classroom on the thatched top floor caught fire, over 90 primary students were burnt alive without any hope of escaping from the inferno.


A large number of Tamil Nadu's nearly 50,000 schools flout existing safety rules and regulations.

Most at risk are some of the 13,000 private schools like the one in Kumbakonam which pay little heed to fire safety or security, experts say.

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 license to operate.

Preliminary investigations have revealed that the school in Kumbakonam had been last inspected by authorities 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.

Dull and derelict

The school building in Kumbakonam, India
Many of the 13,000 private schools in Tamil Nadu pay little heed to fire regulations

Even the laws are sometimes vague - government regulations say the roofs of school buildings have to be "impervious to heat".

Flagrant violation of school safety regulations continue four decades after the Tamil Nadu government pledged to enforce them after a private school building in Madurai caved in, killing 35 schoolgirls and injuring 137.

Private schools are more prone to be lax, though government schools are not much better, thanks to the public spending on education sliding to a paltry 3% of India's gross domestic product (GDP).

Most of India's private schools in district towns are dull, claustrophobic, cramped and often derelict structures with no fire safety systems, playgrounds or libraries.

Most of these private schools in Tamil Nadu's district towns are located in a warren of congested lanes and by lanes and school authorities often lock the gates when classes are on to keep children from slipping out into the traffic.

The state fire department says that they hold classes and demonstration sessions in schools to alert authorities to fire safety and prevention methods.

But most of the private schools are known to ignore such advice.

They cut corners by putting up thatched roofs made from coconut leaves, as thatch is abundantly available and cheaper than cement or asbestos.

So even with a literacy rate of over 73% - unusually high in India - there is little thought given to safety and security for the children going to district and town schools in Tamil Nadu.

English craze

One expert says that private schools should shoulder much of the blame as they open an English medium section to cash in on the craze for English language education in India, charge steep fees and give very little back in terms of facilities to the students.

In many districts of Tamil Nadu, such English medium schools which are affiliated to state syllabus guidelines, are fly-by-night operations.

A burned-out classroom after a school fire in Kumbakonam, India
Many schools lack libraries and play areas for their pupils

They open up small schools in rented buildings and the authorities and teachers vanish after collecting the annual fees.

Though such English medium schools have been around since 1972, regulation has been lax - there were only four inspectors for such schools in Tamil Nadu till recently when laws were tightened.

Experts say the time has come to rein in the private schools in the districts and make them more accountable.

"The craze for such schools also says a lot about education systems in India where getting good scores is more important than a rounded school life for their children with playgrounds and libraries," an Indian education official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told BBC News Online.

"Parents don't think for a minute about such things before sending their children to schools."

The BBC's Anu Anand reports from Delhi
"State authorities have announced a criminal investigation"

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