Last month, the roof of a private school in Shakargarh, in Narowal District of Punjab, collapsed, leaving seven innocent girl students dead and 17 injured. It is commonly found that school premises and buildings — especially in smaller cities and towns across the country — have many lurking hazards posing a constant threat to the lives of innocent children.
Weak structures, rickety fixtures, worn out fittings and dangerous connections are standard defects. The solutions are often simple and easy to apply at the school level but accidents happen frequently due to lack of understanding, slackness and even absence of common sense.
Internal capacity building is of vital consideration. In model state of affairs, this effort should be made by a group of proficient engineers/architects which the school managements may usually find very expensive to hire. A plain register list can be prepared by a designated senior teacher about the age of the building and its various constituent spaces; visible defects in the structure, furniture and fixtures; status of electricity wiring, boards, hanging wires, cables, ceiling fans and luminary fixtures; location of gas installations; location of eme
rgency exits (if any); location and safety of water supply infrastructure; quality of school floorings, pavements and staircase flights; physical barriers and potential hazards; storage spaces and any kind of danger associated to them.
It is also vital to take stock of the safety situation of the immediate surroundings of the school premises. Location of open manholes, hanging electricity wirings, faulty electricity poles, substations, broken roads and curb stones as well as garbage dumping yards are a few hazards that can cause direct harm to the children and school staff. At the next stage, the school administration must prepare a priority list of measures in accordance with the exigency assigned to each type of work.
Good planning is that which can be implemented easily. The cost of doing remedial work and the route of realisation are fundamental considerations. The answer to these issues is multi-dimensional. Government schools need special care. It may require a great deal of effort to break the inertia and make the head master/mistress undertake any assessment exercise as it may be considered beyond the “normal call of duty”. Parents’ demands can be instrumental at least in comprehending the status of safety at the school that their children attend daily. The task can become easier in case of the existence of a parent-teacher association. Where small cost and input is needed, the work can be done by the imprest funds available with the school. The Education & Works Department, municipality or any other relevant authority may be approached for any higher expenditure. It must be constantly followed up as the bureaucracy takes a long while to stir into action.
Different strategies are needed for private schools, which exist in diverse ranks and profiles. Reputable chains may have a panel of architects/engineers on their contact list. They may be approached to embark on the survey and follow up exercise in reference to the branches/campuses under review. The medium scale schools may also approach qualified professionals to carry on this assignment which may not cost much at the investigation stage. Similarly, private schools in the lower income localities may be asked to approach the NGOs concerned or professional bodies (for example Institution of Engineers or the Institute of Architects) for assistance. In many cases, such calls of professional advice have worked well for the educational institutions in need of help. The minimum help that can be solicited from the professional bodies is in the form of training a few teaching staff in schools in handling building survey tasks, hazard identification, preparation and implementation of safety plans and related responsibilities. Technical universities may also be invited to join in this noble task.
The incidence also calls for a comprehensive review of the situation of educational institutions in the country in general and smaller towns in particular. One finds that an overwhelming majority of schools function in converted premises of residential nature. Over crowding of classrooms, over concentration of schools along busy urban roads and existence in shoddily-constructed premises are some of the common ailments that need policy response.
The building and zoning regulatory authorities — wherever they exist — often look the other way in case of violation of prime principles in this case. At times, these shortcomings blow up to cause larger hazards in the form of stampedes during emergency evacuations in routine access to schools. It is most unfortunate to note that the civic authorities do not give any priority in the allotment/allocation of plots for educational purposes in planned neighbourhoods. The inability of school managements to acquire plots of land at affordable prices emerges as a grave handicap in the creation of purpose-built schools. This handicap alone constitutes an important matter for the consideration of city authorities.
School buildings are a key ingredient of our social infrastructure. They shall be able to generate a capable breed of pupils if we assign safety and functionality as the basic ingredients.
The writer is professor and chairman, Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, Karachi