Panic situations are near-impossible to prevent, but not difficult to manage. No matter what causes the panic, some basic precautions and effective supervision can protect people from its consequences. The stampede at the Government Senior Secondary School at Khajuri Khas in Delhi, in which five girls died and 35 students were injured, could have been easily avoided had the school authorities put in place proper examination-time arrangements and ensured monitoring of the two batches of students. Initial reports suggest that the stampede happened when a large number of girl students rushed down a narrow staircase after some boys misbehaved with a few girls. Anything from a rumour to a natural disaster can trigger panic situations, and the circumstances that led to Thursday’s stampede will become clear only after a comprehensive investigation. But more than what caused the panic, what is of concern is that there was no teacher supervision of the students outside the classroom. In an emergency situation that arose out of real or imagined fears, the school authorities were not at hand to restore calm. Under the circumstances, the girls, who were on the first floor of the school building, and who sensed some immediate danger, must have felt that their only option was to rush out. As a large number of them took a narrow stairway in panic even as some others were making their way up, the stampede was only too likely to happen.
Safety issues in schools have not received adequate attention from regulatory authorities. Following the 2004 fire tragedy in a school in Kumbakonam (Tamil Nadu), some efforts have been made towards making school buildings fire-safe. But there is still inadequate awareness on the ways of handling emergencies. Although the Delhi school tragedy belongs to a different category, it should awaken the authorities to the need for introducing mock drills in disaster management and dealing with emergencies. At present, students in most schools have no idea about evacuation procedures during emergencies. Teachers, who are responsible for the minors under their charge, are not trained in ensuring orderly exit from classrooms in an emergency situation. As suggested by the Supreme Court, safety audits must be prescribed in schools for assessing the extent of adherence to the stipulated safety tasks. Such audits can be used to expose deficiencies in infrastructure and ensure high safety standards. Unless safety issues are considered in all their aspects, Indian schools will remain vulnerable to avoidable tragedies.