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The rules have been in place for a long time now in the Tamil Nadu Educational Manual. These state: "A site should not be selected if its natural position is in the neighbourhood of houses which prevent the free circulation of air and access of sunlight to the school buildings." The three-storeyed, partly-thatched Sri Krishna School in Kumbakonam—where 90 children were charred on July 16—was home to several violations.
Sandwiched by residential buildings, the school had no gate or compound wall. Its premises began right on Kasiraman Street and the entrance was through a narrow door that led to a narrower staircase—also the sole exit. The school squeezed in 870 children and several secrets. Three, almost four, schools operated from one building: Sri Krishna Girls High School, an aided state board Tamil-medium school; Sri Krishna Middle School, which had both a Tamil-medium aided section and an English-medium section following the board of matriculation; and the unrecognised Saraswati Vidyalaya, a nursery school (lkg to Class V) of whose existence the government was not aware of till the accident. Together, the cluster was called Sri Krishna School.
Chief minister J. Jayalalitha has ordered that all thatched roofs in schools be replaced with non-inflammable material by July 30. But experts dub it a knee-jerk reaction. Says S.S. Rajagopalan, educationist and social activist, "This is an effort to divert attention from the real issue. If the Tamil Nadu Educational Manual rules had been complied with, such a school would not have been functioning in the first place. A building can house only one school. In this case, there were three. This points to dereliction of duty at the highest level." Adds Vasanthi V. Devi, academician and chairperson of the state commission for women, "The focus cannot only be on pulling down thatched roofs. Mere regulation without enforcement is an invitation to violation and corruption."
Ironically, some reporters had identified Sri Krishna as one of the better performing schools of Thanjavur district. This is not surprising when a school’s performance is determined solely on the basis of ‘results’—rote-learning and performance in public exams. When ‘good’ results in board exams lead to pressure to expand a school, more rooms and buildings are added within the premises, and the school grows disproportionate to its acceptable strength. According to the rules, the minimum required space per student is 0.88 square metres in elementary schools and 0.99 square metres in secondary schools. The grant-in-aid code insists on a minimum of six urinal compartments for every 100 boys; and there are norms for windows, ventilators and also the sizes of desks and benches. Rajagopalan feels less than 25 per cent of schools honour these commitments. Space and ventilation are paramount—for one, they are natural safeguards in case of a fire or earthquake. More crucially, they are necessary for the holistic development of the child.
Sri Krishna was originally a Tamil-medium school started in 1950. It added a matriculation school under its wing in the 1990s. Matriculation board schools, unlike those under the state board, have lesser strictures. Qualifications of teachers are not strictly monitored, payscales are lower, there’s no audit, and they do not have to implement reservation in recruitment. Hence the dramatic growth in English-medium matriculation schools.
The fire, then, is just the symptom. The real disease is the deliberate neglect of free public education and the encouragement of private aided schools by the government. Tamil Nadu was the first state to introduce free education up to sslc (Class X) in 1964. Slowly, this system is being phased out and privatisation encouraged. According to Rajagopalan, in the last 10 years there’s been hardly any recruitment of teachers in aided, government and panchayat schools. "Every year 4,500 teachers retire, but only 300 or so are recruited. This breeds the hundreds of private schools which the educated upper middle classes patronise."
Tamil Nadu has a unique and cumbersome system of two boards of education leading up to Class X: the state board of school examination, and the board of matriculation schools. Earlier, the board of matriculation was under the purview of the Madras University and the Madurai Kamaraj University. In 1978, when the universities decided it was not their job to oversee school exams, the board was made a separate entity—the ideal step would have been to merge it with the state board. Instead, the state continues to maintain two parallel boards. Where there were 34 matriculation schools in 1978, there are more than 4,500 today. One such English-medium matriculation school was housed in the Sri Krishna school complex.
However, it is the Tamil-medium schools that attract more grants. On the day of the fire at Sri Krishna, an additional education officer (aeo) was expected to inspect the Tamil section. It’s routine to inflate the number of students in the Tamil section on inspection day to enable the school to gain more funds. So on July 16, the management forced students of the English section (from the ground floor) to sit in the Tamil section (on the first floor, where the thatched roof caught fire) to fudge the class strength.
Clearly, it is the manner in which school education is structured in Tamil Nadu that has led to the Kumbakonam disaster. Last year, a student in Chennai committed suicide unable to bear the shame of corporal punishment. An inquiry conducted by the Tamil Nadu Child Rights Protection Network found that of the 12 deaths of students reported, eight were suicides. Though corporal punishment was banned from the revised Tamil Nadu Education Rules, it persists in practice. In a 2002 meeting of the Education Manual Revision Committee, representatives of teachers, headmasters, correspondents and officials of the education department favoured retaining the right to use the cane.
Forcing students to study in perilously cramped schools like Sri Krishna is the result of a system that has made education, especially in English medium, a highly competitive and lucrative business. Laments a child rights activist: "The state and the media abet in the crime in an annual ritual celebration of schools that produce impressive results. Most schools considered the best in Chennai violate norms." Says Vasanthi Devi, "The craze for English-medium schools must be countered by ensuring quality teaching of English as second language in Tamil-medium schools. The government must convince people that this would be better than poor quality English-medium schools." The lesson to be learnt: it is not just thatched roofs that catch fire. If so, Kalakshetra, Chennai’s premier fine arts institute, would have been a heap of ashes long ago.
If free, quality public education is the solution, Union finance minister P. Chidambaram’s announcement that a 2 per cent education cess will be levied on all taxes to give a boost to primary education should help. Says Rajagopalan, "The fund—Rs 4,000-5,000 crore—accruing from the cess should be used to provide quality basic education to the neglected sections." Children then would not be found dead in a Sri Krishna school. Or as child labourers and dropouts.