Disasters as a critical threat to the well-being of children
'Disasters', are defined as "a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources". Due to a range of factors, including age, physical ability, gender, health conditions and, dependency on care givers, many children are extremely vulnerable in the event of a disaster. Such events cause a serious disruption in their healthy growth and development as well as overall well-being. Experiences of fear, violence, separation from parents and caregivers, exploitation and abuse, are some of the key risks that children face. Moreover, the loss of livelihood of their families can lead to homelessness and extreme poverty.
As with other infrastructure, schools are also exposed to disaster risk. Disasters have not only challenged the government and other stakeholders in providing access to education but also endangered the lives of children and those engaged in the pursuit of education.
There is enough evidence to reflect that the quality of school premises and existing capacities of the stakeholders have a bearing on a child’s vulnerability to disaster risks. Given the fact that children are expected to spend majority of their time at school, safe schools attain very high importance with a view to ensuring their safety and well being. Schools can be a safe haven for children that help them slowly move back to normalcy. Within the safe school premises, essential supplementary nutrition for children can be provided, along with safe water and sanitation facilities especially for adolescent girls and boys. Thus there is a global consensus that schools should be resumed at the earliest in the aftermath of a disaster.
Understanding School Safety
‘School Safety’ has been defined as the creation of safe environments for children starting from their homes to their schools and back. This includes safety from large-scale 'natural' hazards of geological/climatic origin, human-made risks, pandemics, violence as well as more frequent and smaller-scale fires, transportation and other related emergencies, and environmental threats that can adversely affect the lives of children. The concept has evolved over the last couple of decades as the threat to the physical well being of children has become more visible both globally and in the country.
The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-2015; building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, adopted at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction underlines the importance of knowledge and education as one of its five main priorities. It draws attention to school children and youth with the aim of making the community at large more aware of the threat of hazards and become better prepared. The concept of school safety in its current form includes safety issues both inside and outside the school. It includes issues of child protection and safety that look at all forms of violence and deprivation that affect the physical and mental wellbeing of children. As it stands today therefore, School Safety is a concept hat encompasses “the creation of safe environments for children starting from their homes to their schools and back.”
National Policy Instruments
- Constitution of India - As per the Indian Constitution, access to education is a fundamental right of each child in the country.
- National Policy on Children (2013) - The National Policy for Children reaffirms the Government‘s commitment to the realization of rights of all children in the country. It recognizes that “every person below the age of eighteen years as a child and that childhood is an integral part of life with a value of own, and long term, sustainable, multi-sectoral, integrated, and inclusive approach is necessary for the harmonious development and protection of our children”. The Policy has identified survival, health, nutrition, education, development, protection (including from emergencies/disasters) and participation as the undeniable rights of every child, and has also declared these as key priority areas.
- National Disaster Management Act (2005) - The National Disaster Management Act 2005 lays down the institutional, legal, financial and coordination mechanisms for Disaster Management (DM) at the national, state, district and local levels. Through the National Institute of Disaster Management, the Act envisages promotion of safety awareness among stakeholders including teachers and students.
- National Policy on Disaster Management (NPDM), 2009 - The National Policy on Disaster Management 2009 highlights the need for structural as well as non- structural safety in schools and educational institutions. In the chapter on Techno-legal Regime, in section 6.4.1, the Policy identifies school buildings as a national priority and enables provision for designing the school buildings/hostels with earthquake resilient features and equip them with appropriate fire safety measures. In the chapter on capacity development under section 10.2.2, the policy also emphasizes upon disaster management training in all educational institutions including schools. Section 10.5.1 makes a reference to the role of National Cadet Corps (NCC) and scouts and guides in schools and colleges for disaster management related work. Section 10.6.1 of NPDM discusses the introduction of subject of disaster management in the curriculum through the Central and State Boards of Secondary Education.
- National Policy on Education (NPE) 1968, Revised in 1992, the National Policy on Education calls for a "child-centred approach" in primary education, but does not contain a specific reference to school safety or disaster risk issues of children.
- Right to Education Act 2009 - Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 guarantees free and compulsory education to all the children in the country till the age of 14. The Act sets minimum norms and standards with regard to location and quality of schools and in Clause 19, lays down that no school shall be established, or recognized unless it fulfills the norms and standards specified in the schedule. One of the key standards is in relation to access to “all weather buildings”; in “areas with difficult terrain, risk of landslides, floods, lack of roads and in general, danger for young children in the approach...the State Government / Local Authority shall locate the school in such a manner as to avoid such dangers”. The Act lays down the formation of the School Management Committee for planning of infrastructure and other requirements with respect to operational functioning of schools. The School Development Plan, as laid out by the Act, spells out the physical requirements of additional infrastructure and equipments to meet the norms spelt out in the schedule (in relation to all weather buildings). The RTE Rules provide detailed guidance on implementation of the Act on the ground.
The National School Safety Policy Guidelines apply to all schools in the country – whether government, aided or private, irrespective of their location in rural or urban areas. They apply to all stakeholders involved in delivery of education to children in India. The Guidelines stand for a vision of India where all children and their teachers, and other stakeholders in the school community are safe from any kind of preventable risks due to natural hazards that may threaten their well-being during the pursuit of education. The guidelines also actively promote that educational continuity is maintained / resumed even in the immediate aftermath of a disaster so that children are physically, mentally and emotionally secure within their schools. Right to Education is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of India . In order to facilitate access of all children in the country with respect to the Right to Education, it is important to ensure that children remain safe as they access and enjoy their Right to Education.
Key Challenges for Safe Schools
Efforts on school safety at the National and State levels are at an evolving stage. Key challenges in implementation of school safety measures include:
- Disconnect between institutions : There is a visible disconnect between the ‘non-emergency’ schemes (Pertaining to Education) such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Disaster response / preparedness. Education programmes are executed in most states with little synergy or policy linkages with the SDMA / DDMA.
- Limited convergence between schemes : Resources required for effective implementation of a govt. scheme cannot be leveraged in the absence of a mechanism for collaborative working with other budget holders. For instance, land development within the school campus may be funded through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). However, close coordination between micro planning activity for MGNREGA and School Development Plan preparation would be necessary for convergence.
- Limited understanding of school safety concept : It is evident that the existing education machinery in the country is keen to promote safe learning environment for children and teachers but actual implementation of programmes on ground points to limited understanding of the concept of safety. At best, new school designs incorporate earthquake safety features in many areas; however floods, cyclones, landslides have been given little attention in design and costing of schools. In addition non-structural elements are often not understood as threats to safety. At the level of teachers and students, safety issues are discussed and pursued as one off activities. School timetable and curriculum need suitable modifications to make safety understanding a routine activity.
Approach to Implementation
Fundamental principles that form the core approach of these guidelines are given below:
- All hazard approach - School Safety efforts need to take cognizance of all kinds of hazards that may affect the well- being of children. These may include natural hazards such as floods and earthquakes as well as manmade hazards. Hazards include structural and non- structural factors. Structural factors include dilapidated buildings, poorly designed structures, faulty construction, poorly maintained infrastructure, loose building elements, etc. while non structural factors include loosely placed heavy objects such as almirahs, infestation of the campus by snakes and any other pests, broken or no boundary walls, uneven flooring, blocked evacuation routes, poorly designed and placed furniture that may cause accidents and injury, inadequate sanitation facilities etc. Safety of children, their teachers and parents needs to be approached holistically to include visible as well as invisible risks that may be sudden on-set or have built-up slowly over a period of time.
- Strengthening existing policy provisions to make schools safer - There has been substantial investment by the Government in creating infrastructure for the education sector. There is need to ensure that all the existing and new infrastructure is resilient to locally relevant hazards through the design and construction processes. Unsafe structures can increase the vulnerability of children who are the primary target group of such efforts. Thus it is important to ensure that all development actions taken even in non-emergency times are designed with a view to ensuring their performance during emergencies. It is imperative that the existing institutions at the national and state level are strengthened and capacitated to take responsibility of school safety planning and action. Such a step will not only ensure that development policies and programmes are strengthened but also provide the necessary succor to safety actions.
- School Safety as an indicator of quality for planning, execution and monitoring - School Safety is not a onetime effort but a continuous process. Safety principles need to be incorporated in the day to day functioning of the educational institutions in the country, cutting across the traditional stages of the disaster cycle: preparedness, response and recovery. Thus institutions involved in providing education in the country need to evolve a methodology and an approach of their own that looks at safety as a continuously monitored indicator of quality
- Strengthening Institutional Commitment to Safe Learning Environment for Children - The first and foremost step in promoting safety of learning spaces is to sensitize and strengthen official structures and mechanisms responsible for safety at the State, District and Local levels.
- Planning for Safety - School safety planning needs to be undertaken at the district level as well as at the local /school level.
- Implementation of safety actions - All existing as well as new schools need to conform to safety standards as per the National Building Code. In addition, any other norms prescribed by the state government need to be adhered to.
- Capacity Building for Safe Schools - A critical enabler for promotion of safety at the school level is deeper understanding, sensitivity and overall capacity of the concerned stakeholders in relation to the issue of school safety.
- Regular monitoring of risk and revision of plan - Implementation of National School Safety Policy Guidelines needs to be monitored at the national level jointly by MHRD and NDMA. At the state level, implementation of the Guidelines needs to be monitored by State Education Department and SDMA.
Roles and Responsibilities of Different Stakeholders
Right of school children to a safe learning environment cannot be upheld by only one institution. There is a need for a more practical linkage between the national, state and local governance structures so that the overall well- being of children and teachers as well as their families can be promoted. Moreover, these structures need to work together along with the school community to not only address primary risks (floods, earthquake, etc.) but also underlying risks and vulnerabilities to singularly define ‘safety’ as a quality issue in education facilities whether government, aided or privately owned.
The following stakeholders and their roles and responsibilities are outlined in the Policy guidelines.
- State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs)
- District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs)
- National level Education Authorities
- State level Education Authorities
- District and Block level Education Authorities
- SCERT and DIETs
- School administration
- Accreditation and Registration Authorities for schools
- PRIs / Urban Local Bodies and Line departments
- School Children
- Non-Governmental Organizations (local, regional and international)
- Corporate bodies
- International Funding Agencies and United Nations
Source : National Disaster Management Guidelines - School Safety Policy