Avinash Mehrotra vs Union Of India & Ors on 13 April, 2009

Supreme Court of India
Avinash Mehrotra vs Union Of India & Ors on 13 April, 2009
Author: D Bhandari
Bench: Dalveer Bhandari, Lokeshwar Singh Panta



          WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO.483 OF 2004

Avinash Mehrotra                     ......    Petitioner


Union of India & Others              ......    Respondents


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

National Capital.

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

the teachers.

(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

the schools.

(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.

In Election Commission of India v. St. Mary’s School &

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,

Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors., (1997)

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
fourteen years.”

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

compulsory education.

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



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

three months.

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



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

Rescue Department.


ii. They shall also be trained in providing emergency

first-aid treatment.

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




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.


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

Educational Officer.


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

extinguishing equipments.

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

this order.


(Dalveer Bhandari)

(Lokeshwar Singh Panta)
New Delhi;

April 13, 2009.

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