How a fire in Surat has shaken up the ‘coaching’ industry in Bhopal

Following a fire in a Surat coaching centre that claimed 24 lives, the Bhopal administration ordered an inspection of fire safety compliance at all coaching centres. Findings were alarming and notices have been issued to 200 coaching institutes and hostels.

The Surat fire tragedy in a coaching centre which claimed the lives of 24 students has impacted coaching centres in Bhopal as well. A fire safety inspection ordered by Kalpana Srivastava, Divisional Commissioner, found that none of the coaching centres had even basic fire safety facilities.

The four inspection teams found that in the 250 odd coaching centres in MP Nagar, the city’s busiest area where a majority of the coaching centres are housed, and other localities, many did not even have a fire extinguisher or a fire alarm system and were ill-equipped to deal with any unforeseen emergency fire situation. Most of them had unsafe electric panels, blocked corridors, narrow stairways, congested classrooms and no emergency exit.

The district administration has asked these centres to install fire safety systems within a prescribed time limit and warned that strict action would be taken against defaulters.

However, the coaching centre owners say they are finding it difficult to follow the safety criteria laid down by the city administration. “I run my coaching institute in a rented building and the landlord will not allow me to install an emergency fire exit door,” said Sebastian Joseph, who runs a coaching centre in the city’s Ashoka Garden area. “Many other centres are facing similar problems, particularly those located in rented premises.”

“MP Nagar is prime area, where most of the coaching institutes are situated,” said another coaching centre owner in MP Nagar. “We have limited space and are running classes according to the space and facilities available to us. We can’t make alterations to install entrance and exit gates. And shifting to a new place is not so easy”.

The business of coaching centres

Bhopal has a number of reputed coaching centres whose students have succeeded in highly competitive exams. Among the better-known coaching institutes of Bhopal are APT Entrance, Prudence Coaching, Quantum Coaching Classes, Sadguru Academy, Goit Classes and Unique IAS Coaching. Manish Saxena, Professor of Zoology who runs Saxena Coaching Institute said: “We provide coaching for medical and engineering entrance exams. We employ academically qualified and competent staff depending on the requirements of the students. We have dedicated and experienced teachers and we also use innovative teaching tools like working models and online help from experts in the field.

Most of the owners of coaching centres have an education background. But some businessmen have also set up coaching centres which have become an essential part of the education system. The need for and popularity of coaching institutes has gone up considerably over the years. Most high school students and those preparing for various entrance and other competitive examinations attend coaching classes, and their numbers have been on the rise in Madhya Pradesh.

In urban centres, tuition fees vary depending on the level and location. In Bhopal, for coaching complementing the school curriculum, fees could be anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 2000 a month. But coaching for competitive exams like engineering and medical entrance exams is much more expensive, costing anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 150,000 per year, depending upon the reputation of the centre and the programme selected by the student.

The number of students in a centre vary, most medium and large size coaching institutes having between a few hundred to 2000 students in one location. A coaching centre must be registered with the local authorities and a trade license is required and the centre has to pay taxes on revenue generated. All businesses, including coaching institutes, are required to be registered under the Shops and Establishments Act with the local civic authorities of that district. Fire and other safety norms must be fulfilled and a No Objection Certificate (NOC) must be obtained from the district’s fire department, though many coaching institutes continue to operate without such a NOC.

The crackdown

It was only after the Surat tragedy that the district commissioner ordered officials to compile a list of all coaching centres in Bhopal and has now given all of them an ultimatum to install fire safety systems. As a result, many coaching centre owners said they were looking for new premises which conform to the regulations.

Chief Minister Kamal Nath had instructed the Chief Secretary to ensure inspection of fire safety measures at all coaching centres across the state and directed all district collectors to list all the coaching institutes running in their respective districts and audit fire safety arrangements in them. The Chief Minister had then said safety standards should be followed in consultation with the directors or heads of the coaching institutes to ensure that a Surat-type incident does not happen in Madhya Pradesh.

More than 300 coaching centres and over 100 large hostels were subsequently inspected. The teams checked hostels and coaching institutes in different localities including MP Nagar Zone-1 and 2 and Mansarovar Complex, Malviya Nagar, New Market, Indrapuri, Sonagiri, Awadhpuri, Raisen Road, Ashoka Garden, Bairagarh, and Karond areas. At least 160 centres were declared dangerous for students if a fire emergency broke out. Officials said as per the norms all institutes and hostels should have fire extinguishers, sand buckets, hose reel, and fire alarm system. They should also have emergency exits. But only 40 coaching centres and hostels had firefighting equipment.

Notices were issued to 200 coaching institutes and hostels asking them to make the required fire safety arrangements. However, only 40 of them have submitted affidavits along with their compliance report till date, saying that firefighting equipment, fire alarm, emergency exit in coaching centres and hostels have been arranged. While 31 centres have provided incomplete information, 129 coaching centres did not even respond to the notice.

The district authorities sealed five coaching centres in July after they failed to comply with the fire safety norms. The action was taken after they were served notices but did not take any action. These study centres were located in the busy MP Nagar area. Officials said these coaching centres will be allowed to resume operations after they fulfill the fire safety norms. The inspection of coaching centres will continue but the authorities have not given a deadline yet.

Real challenges

Said Seema Mathur who runs a coaching centre in Arera Colony: “We purchased and installed firefighting equipment, fire alarm and fulfilled other safety criteria. However, it is not possible to install an emergency exit gate. In such a scenario, we are left with no option but to shift the classes to another area. However, most of our students live close to the existing coaching centre and it will not be easy for them to travel to any other place. It is not easy to find another place where students of our centre can come easily”.

Manjul Bajpai who is preparing for the engineering entrance exams said: “No doubt we should learn lessons from the Surat fire incident. We cannot put our life at risk. But the coaching centres are facing practical problems in fulfilling the stringent fire safety norms. The students will be affected if the centres shut down or shift to another location.”

Another student Sanjay Mehrotra, who is preparing for bank entrance examinations, said that the coaching centres should fulfill the safety norms and the staff and students should be made aware about what to do in case of a fire emergency. “Many entrance tests are to be held in the next few months, so coaching centre owners should be given sufficient time to fulfill the safety norms so that the studies of the students are not affected”.

No compromise on safety

Officials say many coaching institutes do not even have statutory permission from the authorities to open and run a coaching centre, especially those situated in multi-storey buildings, with no emergency exit and a single narrow entry and exit point. Classes are conducted in small rooms and the number of students are often far in excess of the safe capacity of these places.

Some hostels did not have even proper drinking water and toilet facilities. The coaching centres for women did not have toilets. The stairs to reach the centre were so narrow that two students could not climb together. Electric meters were installed on the side of the stairs. About 95 percent of the institutes did not have an emergency exit.

Bhopal Collector Tarun Kumar Pithode has said, “Fire safety audit of coaching centres will continue and those who flout the norms will face action.” He said many commercial complexes, high-rise buildings, shops have also been inspected besides the coaching institutes and those found lacking in safety norms have been asked to improve according to the set parameters. “Monitoring of the coaching centres by the Fire Department is an ongoing process and we shall ensure the safety of the students is not compromised with. Fire Department is well-equipped to deal with any emergency and have all the necessary tools and equipment.”

Bhopal Municipal Corporation authorities admit that coaching classes seldom take No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the fire department. Assistant fire officer Sajid Khan said, “There is an urgent need to strongly enforce guidelines particularly in places like MP Nagar where there are large numbers of coaching institutes.”

The state government has offered private coaching institutes to run operations from government colleges. However, the response from coaching centre owners has been lukewarm. Owners of many coaching centres said government colleges in the city are located at places where students won’t turn up in large numbers. They fear in such a situation they would end up losing business. “Besides, we run classes in shifts from morning to evening, but in government colleges, we will get space only after classes are over,” said a coaching institute owner in New Market area.

Bhopal commissioner Kalpana Srivastava said: “We want to find a solution to the problem and are holding talks with the owners. We are aware of the plight of the students. We do not want to create any trouble for them or the coaching centres by asking them to shift. We will consider the best available options in favour of students. But deliberate negligence on the part of coaching centres will not be condoned and they must follow the directives being issued by the civic and fire department authorities”

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