REPORTABLE IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA CIVIL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO.483 OF 2004 Avinash Mehrotra ...... Petitioner Versus Union of India & Others ...... Respondents JUDGMENT
Dalveer Bhandari, J.
1. This 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.
2. It 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
3. The 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.
4. The 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 help.
5. According 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.
6. It 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
7. Flagrant 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.
8. The petitioner has prayed that he has filed this petition
with a specific objective that:
(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.
9. The 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.
10. In 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
(iii) Separating 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
(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
(vii) Residential 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
(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.
11. In 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
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.
12. It 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.
13. In 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.
14. The 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
proper planning of buildings, choice of proper
materials and components, electrical equipments
and making suitable provisions for fire detection
and suppression system.”
15. This 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
16. 27 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.
Thousands more schools do not have adequate emergency
egress or non-inflammable roofs. Unfortunately, most States
failed to provide any quantitative data in their affidavits.
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 Government.
17. While 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
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.
18. Despite 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.
Weak enforcement 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.
19. In 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 country.
20. Education 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.
21. The 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.
22. Our 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
23. The 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.
24. Education 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:
“The immortal Poet Valluvar whose Tirukkural will
surpass all ages and transcend all religious said of
“Learning is excellence of wealth that none destroy;
To man nought else affords reality of joy.”
25. Education 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 questioning
26. Then 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
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.
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,
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.
27. Unlike 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,
28. By contrast, Article 51A(k), which reads as follows,
places burden squarely on the parents:
“Fundamental 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
29. The 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
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 society.
30. This Court has routinely held that another fundamental
right to life encompasses more than a breath and a heartbeat.
In 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.
31. The 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
32. In 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.
33. This 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 education.
This is ultimately why the judiciary must oversee
Government spending on free and compulsory
34. In 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.
35. In 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
iv. Fire fighting training to all teachers and students
from X to XII standards.
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
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
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
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
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
ii. They shall also be trained in providing emergency
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 Department.
iv. Emergency 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
3.3 SCHOOL BUILDING SPECIFICATIONS:
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 ground floor.
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 children.
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
vii. School buildings have to be insured against fire and
natural calamities with Group Insurance of school
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 & CERTIFICATES:
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
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.
Stability 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.
36. In 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.
37. Many 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
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 policy.
38. In 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
39. It 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.
40. In 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.
(v) Necessary training be imparted to the staff and
other officials of the school to use the fire
41. The 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
42. List this petition on 07.12.2009 to ensure compliance of
(Lokeshwar Singh Panta)
April 13, 2009.