Mid day meals were being cooked in Lord Krishna Middle School in Kumbakonam on an unfortunate day in 2004. The building, housed more than 900 students in a crowded, thatched-roof building with a single entrance, a narrow stairway, windowless classrooms and only one entrance and exit.
Dry coconut leaves used as firewood in a nearby makeshift kitchen with thatched-roof sparked fire and escalated quickly.
94 students were burned alive that day.
Provoked by that came W.P.(C) NO. 483/2004 PIL(W) before the Supreme Court the same year. Five years later, the court issued various directions to the centre and state governments, addressing the deficiencies in law.
12 years and the case still continues to be listed for the court’s directions. The court has issued at least 31 orders- 1 in 2004, 2 in 2005, 8 in 2006, 5 in 2007, 3 in 2008, 2 in 2009, 3 in 2010, 4 in 2011, just one in 2013 and after a lull for 5 years. The case is now being heard again and the case has seen at least 50 hearings.
In 2009, the court gave its most important order in the case. Justices Dalveer Bhandari, Lokeshwar Singh Panta gave a series of directions for the government to make sure schools comply with the National Building code of India, 2005, in particular Part IV- Fire &Safety and the Code of Practice of Fire Safety in Educational Institutions (IS14435:1997) of the Bureau of Indian Standards.
But the government has to ensure compliance, not the court. There are rules, just seriousness of executive in making sure they are implemented is missing.
There is no point prolonging these cases for decades when the court cannot ensure compliance. Clearly, copious news reports still pop up every now and then about fire in a school. See here.
Further, directions can be issued to welfare associations and parent associations to call out erring schools.
Also, telling the government to impart fire-safety related education (which is one of the orders in the case is completely without teeth. Firstly, the court is stepping out of its mandate in partially deciding school curriculum and secondly, this direction is so vague to ever ensure compliance.
Such orders only prolong litigation and dilute the concept of public interest litigation, no matter how well intentioned the court is regarding the issue. Keeping such cases pending is pointless unless the court is issuing continuous mandamus like in the Right to Food case, MC Mehta cases on air pollution, TN Godavarman on Forest Rights. Another point to be noted are that those cases require continuous interventions of the court due to the nature of issues. The present case does not fall under the category.
The case is being listed once again today and in all likelihood won’t be given more than a few minutes. But what is the alternative?