Unsafe schools are a reality. At repeated great cost, this has been seen many times in the last decade. The Kumbhakonam fire tragedy in 2004 took 92 young lives; the 2001 Gujarat earthquake killed hundreds of children — more than 400 in a single incident; the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir in which more than 17,000 children in India and Pakistan were crushed to death under their school buildings. Despite the opportunity of using schools as safe facilities for public shelter following disasters, school buildings are an additional liability, and the worst place to concentrate our children. It is a wonder that there is growing national demand for clean air and safe water, but not for safer schools.
A recent school safety audit conducted by the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (Aidmi) team in 54 schools in six hazard-prone states of India revealed that school safety is not a high priority for either public or corporate officials. The audit method was developed by the Aidmi team with schoolteachers, school administrators, parents and children, in coordination with the respective local government authorities and used a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to gather evidence on school resilience.
The audit covered schools in a range of disaster-prone areas: flood-affected portions of Assam, Rajasthan and Maharashtra; earthquake-affected portions of Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir; and tsunami-affected portions of Tamil Nadu. In each of these areas, the audit assessed the staff understanding of hazard safety, the structural safety and preparedness plans, and the impact of existing mitigation measures. The influence of non-school actors — government, NGO and corporate — on school safety was also reviewed.
Although a comprehensive analysis of findings is pending, the following five points are clearly emerging:
First, processes and methods which reduce disaster risks — such as design of seismically safe buildings — are not considered even after the area served by the school has faced a major disaster. School buildings are often structurally unsafe.
Second, the focus of reconstruction after any disaster has been on new and big buildings, and not on safer school buildings. Size matters. Safety does not.
Third, the schools that are safer have not shared their experiences with schools that need to rebuild. Schools are our temples of learning, but school-to-school learning on safety is not occurring.
Fourth, the teachers in the surveyed schools have high levels of interest in making schools safe. They do not know where to access basic, useful information. Current constraints in time and resources inhibit this access.
Fifth, where school safety activities are promoted by NGOs, the government or the corporate sector, follow-up is often lacking. This almost guarantees that the high-cost initial effort will have diminishing returns.
In short, we are not demonstrating sufficient concern for the safety of our children.
What can be done? How can the government and civil society be best utilized to leverage results? One interesting solution shines out. Business houses could inspire their employees to demand certificates of school safety from their respective education authorities.
Authorities should certify if a school is safe and prepared for any possible disaster risk. Once such a demand is built, schools and governments are bound to act. The corporate sector has the resources and the weight to take the lead. As in politics or economics, demand rules: Let us create a demand for protecting our children.
Mihir R. Bhatt is with the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, and currently working on school safety in Bangladesh and Nepal. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org