Aren't we trustees of children's safety?

So wrote John Hay, American writer (1839–1905). Things have not improved much since in terms of neglect of children, specially in respect of ensuring their safety. The subject is relevant as we mark Children’s Day to coincide with Nehru’s birthday.

On November 5, 2011, 300 students from three schools in Bangalore were frolicking in the swimming pool of a holiday resort in Nelamangala. When the children left the pool for lunch, an attendant noticed nine years old Tejas floating face down.

By the time he was pulled out, it was all over for the class three student of a school in Jalahalli, the only child of Harish, an auto driver,  and his wife Uma. According to eye-witnesses, there was nobody from the school or resort to monitor the children in the pool. It is a clear failure of the trust parents placed on the school and even on the part of the resort.

Add, for instance, a series of news. A few years ago, four children were buried alive and as many injured when the retention wall of a school ground collapsed, following incessant rains, in a Puttur school.

All the details about the location of the toilet near the retention wall, and the alleged sub-standard work, pointed to an accident that was waiting to happen.

As for incessant rains, the reason trotted out for the accident, they are no strangers to Puttur or the whole of coastal Karnataka.

Also, a few years ago, more than twenty children were injured when a bunch of gasballoons they were to release for a World Day Against Child Labour event burst near India Gate, Delhi. In yet another case, children taking part in a birthday party in a hired hall were playing hide and seek. One of them went to the open balcony and in the excitement of chase and discovery, fell from the balcony to his death.

In Tamil Nadu scores of children died in a fire while midday meals for children were being cooked in school premises. More such accidents are waiting to happen.

It is not the exclusive record of Indians to expose children to danger and death. A couple of years ago, 36 children died when a torrent of water smashed into a primary school in north-east China.

This is only a partial catalogue of children suffering because the elders are “loafing around the throne”, as Hay put it in the opening lines above. We want to make quick money, cutting the corners to save money and make a quick buck – never mind the safety of innocent children.

Commercial and residential buildings have to obtain safety clearances. Then, why not schools where innocent children cannot perceive or complain about safety matters? They are led into the school, in terms of safety, like sheep to the slaughterhouse, which also can’t complain about the inhumane conditions obtaining there despite rules.

So, where lies the remedy? First of all, the responsibility lies with the school or whoever caters to the needs of children.

They should act as trustees to a constituency that is too tender to know the safety deficiencies or complain about them. The parents have equal responsibility to see that the infrastructure of the schools to which they send their children is safety-compliant.

One is tempted to suggest that the government should lay down rules and certify compliance. Unfortunately, this is an invitation for corruption. The safety certificate and its renewal will cost a lot in terms of bribe money without ensuring the real safety of the children.

One of the critical areas of children safety is their transport to schools. Who can forget the loss of several children when a school bus plunged into Gurpur River a couple of years ago? Such accidents keep  occurring without making it to the media. Overloaded autos taking children to schools are an unregulated area.

Now that many neibhourhood schools are being closed for lack of quorum and consolidated, hurding children of many schools into one selected school, there will be need for transport for students to schools located beyond reasonable walking distance – or risk large-scale drop-outs. This will call for close regulation of the transport service.

In this context we should welcome the Karnataka government’s move to enforce the installation of speed governors in school buses – limiting the speed to 65 KM per hour.

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