Ever thought of doing a simple head counting of school going children stuffed in Omni Vans? It doesn’t take too much to see school vans packed to capacity going about their business: they are fast becoming a familiar sight in Imphal. Toddlers get ferried in them for play school or kindergarten class, no matter if they are too small to be sitting in a vehicle unattended by adults. To their credit though, some pre schools do have a policy of having adult supervision while ferrying small toddlers back and fro. Most school buses do not have adult supervision and it is often family members who have to monitor their safety while crossing roads or boarding or alighting from the bus.
It is disquieting that parents and those in authority related to the education department and road and transport (including traffic police) seem to be totally unaware of how much their children are in the face of danger and how rules are not being followed. Some parents may well feel uneasy about seeing their children all cramped inside an Omni van but are often cautious about pursuing the matter pro actively with school authorities, fearing fee hikes or even the possibility of school authorities asking them to drop their children themselves. Most parents today caught up in the rush and demands of their career often do not have the time to drop their children off to their schools while many do not have a four wheeler that is necessitated by the rainy spells in the state. This then means that parents are the first victims to fall prey to the school van service. The second victim(s) that is directly affected are the children.
A school van carrying children sitting in comfort and safety is a sight that is no longer being seen. Rather, it is all too common to see three or even four children sitting in the front seat. I see this sight everyday since my soon to be 6 year old son also sits in the front seat with three other boys of the same size. A total head count gave me 21 children in his school van. The issue here is not just the van that my son travels in, but the fact that the flouting of basic safety standards is being seen as an accepted norm. A front passenger seat should have minimum two kids with the safety belt on or an adult in it. It certainly should not be seating four hyper-active kids! More kids also means that for children studying in a relatively distant place, it would take more time for them to get to school and then back home again. The vans would collect them very early on and drop them off late resulting in more exhaustion, lack of playtime and disrupting eating cycles.
The control of school van associations over the passenger service of school children merits a careful study. Things were not the same about ten years back. The unionization of van services is definitely good for their business but it should not be given the position of calling the shots over the safety of children. After all, school van service also falls under a consumer service and any violation of rules must be reprimanded. School authorities must also take pro active action and be firm about balancing van fee and van seat allocation. The Government can also step in by looking into the Manipur Motor Vehicle Act and going through its fine print. If there is no mention of any regulation for school vans and buses, it is time that proper rules are laid down.
Some serious reading on the subject of school van and bus services led me to various state laws that have laid down the total number of children that can be carried and other safety norms. Also, the Supreme Court issued certain guidelines following a tragic incident in 1997 when a school van carrying 28 children fell into the Yamuna river. The Apex Court had made it mandatory to equip vehicles carrying schoolchildren with first aid boxes, fire extinguishers, grills on windows, school bag tray under the seat and provision for water. Of these items, none is visible in school vans or buses in Manipur: not the first aid box, not the drinking water though the school bag tray is substituted by the luggage rack on top of the vehicles. But then, the luggage racks are there not to ensure children sit in comfort; without having to carry their heavy school bags but, are a means for their commercial pursuits! More children would fit in without their bags in the way. More children = more money coming in.
This is not to call for a total clamp down on school vans. Those running them need their bread and butter too. But there must not be any compromise on the safety of school going children. There definitely needs to be a system for how much load (inclusive of children and their school bags) school vans and buses can carry. Government agencies need to take a more pro-active role but it is definitely the parents who have to take a stand for their children. Given the number of vehicles on the streets, the blatant flouting of driving norms and rules and massive traffic jams on the roads and streets of Imphal, fatal accidents involving school vans and buses is something that is just waiting to happen. Must we wait for such a spectacle to react?