“What kind of impact do some judgements have on the finances of the government?” In this post, I propose to look at this question using a judgement delivered in April 2009. In the course of this post, I also argue that judges should refrain from delivering judgements which have huge financial and policy implications, as they sometimes have the effect of re-shaping government policies, and do not always result in public good.
The case I am using is: Avinash Mehrotra v. Union of India (Supreme Court – W.P No. 483 of 2004, judgement by Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Lokeshwar Panta, accessible here).
The relevant facts: The case was a PIL filed relating to a fire in a private school in a district of Tamil Nadu. The fire started in the school’s kitchen while the cooks were preparing the mid-day meal. Usually around 900 students attended the school daily, and a large number perished in the fire.
What the PIL was for: (1) Every child should get free, safe, secure, and good education (!); (2) Stringent rules and regulations at par with the highest standards should be framed for ensuring safety in schools; (3) such standards should be enforced effectively; (4) Manuals for fire-safety procedures should be framed; (5) kitchens in the school should have adequate safety mechanisms; (6) schools should not exceed the limit of children it can admit; (7) Schools must prepare emergency safety plans, assign duties to teachers, staff, and students and teachers, and also local authorities should be trained for responding to emergencies; (8) a committee of jurists, legal experts and lawyers be constituted to formulate a comprehensive report for carrying out reforms in the safety standards.
The judgement of the court:
First, the Court noted that States admit that many schools do not meet self-determined safety standards, let alone those of the National Building Code.
Second, it noted that thousands of schools lack any fire suppression equipment.
Third, it noted that thousands more schools do not have adequate emergency exits or non-inflammable roofs.
Fourth, it said that the complainant’s brief was viewed by them as a document which crystallised safety standards for schools.
Fifth, it then rambled on for a bit about the importance of education.
Sixth, it said that the right to a safe and secure education is a part of the fundamental right to education.
Lastly, it said that portions of the National Building Code of India, 2005 will have to be complied with, and named the specific parts it wanted complied. These include (DISCLAIMER: Some points which I thought were very reasonable have not been mentioned. This post already seems never ending!!):
(a) Fire fighting training to all teachers and students from X to XII standards.
(b) 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.
(c) Display of emergency telephone numbers and list of persons to be contacted on the notice board, and also 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 emergency.
(d) 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.
(e) All schools to observe Fire Safety Day on 14th of April every year.
(f) Existing school buildings shall be provided with additional doors in the main entrances as well as the class rooms if required.
(g) Kitchen and other activities involving use of fire shall be carried out in a secure and safe location away from the main school building.
(h) 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.
Positives: It noted the lack of planning, training, infrastructure and the consequent danger posed to students in schools in emergency situations. The court rightly asked state governments to ensure these issues are addressed.
First, the court went on to address the specific question of how these deficiencies are to be addressed. The court was right in pointing out the government was not discharging its duties adequately. It was not right in pointing out how it should be doing it.
Second, by telling the government to impart fire-safety related education, it also partially decided school curriculum!! Note, that while the necessity of such education is undoubted, it is the role of the government to decide whether such education should be given, or can be given.
, the government has been asked to implement directions it would find difficult to do, even while acting in good faith. As discussed in an earlier post
, there are nearly 7.5 lakh primary schools in the country. Setting up, (1) Fire Task Forces, (2) inspection teams, (3) separate kitchens, and so on requires a great mobilisation of resources when a large number of schools do not have pukka roofs, buildings, or even toilets.
My criticisms lead me to the point of stating that while the directions of the court are well intentioned, since the government is forced to abide by them, the judgement actually not just re-shapes the priority of the government, but also reduces the flexibility of the government in ensuring that the spirit of the judgement is upheld.