Earlier this month, Rajveer Singh was faced with a choice no parent should have to make. He had to decide between attending the last rites of his five-year-old daughter, Mamta, and taking his second child, Karishma, to Agra for treatment.
The labourer from Etah in Uttar Pradesh will always remember the foggy morning of January 19 with dread, because that was when an overcrowded school bus carrying his daughters was hit by a truck. Twelve children aged between five and 15 died in the incident, and Mamta was among them.
Their school – JS Vidhya Niketan – had reportedly violated an order issued by the district magistrate to remain shut on account of the cold weather conditions.
Sad as it may be, this incident is no isolated one. Uttar Pradesh tops the country’s charts in terms of children killed in road accidents, and according to statistics presented by the transport research wing, the state witnessed 2,610 such casualties in 2015 alone. The adjoining state of Bihar comes second on the list, with around 1,121 fatalities.
School children continue to die every year despite the issuance of strict guidelines by the Supreme Court in the aftermath of a horrific accident in 1997, when a school bus plunged into the Yamuna from a bridge at Wazirabad in Delhi. As many as 28 students of a government-run school at Ludlow Castle were killed in the incident.
Bystanders gather near the scene of a bus crash in Etah in the state of Uttar Pradesh. (AFP Photo)
Twenty years later, not much has changed. Though government data says Delhi has 2,468 school buses and around 500 vans, officials believe the number could be over 3,000 because many schools and private cab owners continue to operate vans and buses without permits.
Last year, the Delhi traffic police penalised the owners of as many as 1,160 school buses and vans for not possessing the requisite papers. The transport department – for its part – levied fines on the owners of 157 buses and 162 vans, and impounded 46 vehicles of the kind.
Officials say vehicles with a seating capacity of eight usually transport 16 students to school. Drivers of some school vans even make children sit in the boot, next to highly inflammable CNG cylinders, at great risk to their lives.
However, overcrowding is not the only way in which school bus owners endanger children’s lives by violating Supreme Court guidelines across the country.
Transport department and traffic police officials in Madhya Pradesh admit that at least 20% school buses operate in violation of Supreme Court guidelines on a daily basis. While as many as 60% of the vehicles don’t have speed governors, 30% don’t bother to retain a teacher until the last child is dropped off. The schools, instead, palm off the responsibility to senior students who double up as ‘bus monitors’.
The monitoring mechanism is not up to the mark either. Though traffic police across the country launch drives to check security measures in school vehicles two or three times a year, they don’t deter rule-violating bus drivers and owners to a great extent.
The Supreme Court stipulation that the vehicles prominently display “On school duty” signages and list phone numbers for the public to lodge complaints has not produced encouraging results either.
“I have received complaints of bus owners refusing to entertain callers who want to report rash driving. We have now decided to print the traffic police department’s number too, so quick action can be taken against the bus driver or the school concerned,” said Bhopal additional superintendent of traffic police Sameer Yadav.
There have also been instances of rash drivers endangering the lives of school children. As many as 26 students of Kakatiya Techno School of Toopran in Telangana’s Medak district were killed in July last year, when a speeding school bus rammed into a passenger train at an unmanned railway crossing in Masaipet. A probe revealed that the driver failed to notice the train as well as warning shouts from passersby because he was busy chatting on his mobile phone.
P Achyuta Rao of the State Child Rights Committee claimed that safety and security of students don’t rank high enough on school agendas. “Schools may display their phone numbers on buses for the sake of publicity, but they don’t ensure the presence of emergency doors, fire extinguishers and first-air boxes. Some school managements even procure unfit buses from neighbouring states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra and get them re-registered in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh,” he said.
A few states like Punjab and Haryana do better in this regard because their governments have notified schemes for safe transportation, and compliance is monitored by the high court. When it was reported in October 2015 that the traffic police and transport departments were failing to rein in schools, the high court sought the active participation of child rights commissions of both the states and appointed the Chandigarh administration as the nodal agency for effective implementation of the guidelines.
On January 20, the high court directed the transport departments of Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh to inspect buses across their jurisdictions to determine if they had female attendants to ensure the safety of girl students.
Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra also need stringent monitoring because many schools in these states have left the onus of arranging transport facilities on parents, forcing them to hire private vans.
Students will continue to be vulnerable until the apex court’s guidelines are followed in letter and spirit, and nobody can testify to this fact better than Irfan – a kindergarten student from Kerala who was involved in a tragic road accident near Thiruvananthapuram in 2011. The boy survived while seven other toddlers didn’t, but remained in a coma. When Irfan finally regained consciousness two years later, it was in a vegetative state that’s arguably no better than death.
Clearly, lessons writ in blood are far from learned.