In Manipur today, it has become so commonplace for varied civil society groups to pitch their stands on an array of issues that there are occasions when the few sane voices gets lost in the din of noise and rhetoric. A case in point can be that of the All Manipur Students Guardian Organization (AMSGO) which has voiced its concern over the quality of printing of school textbooks and the nature of school transportation. The Board of Secondary Education Manipur has been rapped on its knuckles every year for failing to make it to the deadlines for school students who need the textbooks on time. This time, the quality of print and the binding of the books seem to be a matter of concern which the BoSEM should step in rectify before other organizations enter in the picture and start posturing. The concerns of the guardians over the existing school transport system in fact calls for a long overdue discussion and tike for action. It is common to see school vans packed to capacity with even small toddlers getting ferried to their day care centers or play school or kindergarten class, no matter if they are too small to be sitting in a vehicle unattended by adults. Only a few pre schools ensure having adult supervision while ferrying small toddlers back and fro with even school buses not having any attendant to walk down small children from the bus and assist in crossing roads. 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.
Parents 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. Here, the control of school vehicle/transport associations over the passenger service of school children merits a careful study. While the unionization of van services is definitely good for their business, it should not be given the position of calling the shots over the safety of children. School transport services falls under a consumer service and any violation of rules must be reprimanded. The Supreme Court had in fact 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 are 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.
The overloading of school children is an area to be treaded with caution in light of the fact that adolescent young people including both boys and girls are packed into vans for long hours on the road. But more than the overcrowding, the verification of drivers is most necessary given the context of the safety of school going children and young girls. Even as transport associations operate multiple trips and even operate for various schools and educational institutions, it is time that school authorities and the relevant Departments but more so, the Education and Transport Department get pro active and sees to it that school transport systems are streamlined for the safety and security of school children. In most other parts of the country, no third agency enters into the arena of school transport but leave it to the school authority since they are the ones who will stand accountable to the parents and guardians of students. Drivers of school vehicles and the vehicles themselves are scrutinized and verified by the police no less and the number of children in vans or vehicles regulated with a minimum age being agreed upon for school drivers. This not only makes it easy for school authorities and the police to be able to zero down on any incidences of wrongdoing on the children but also is a strong check on the intent of drivers. In Manipur, it is most common for a mass habit of taking it easy and reacting only when a crisis erupts. It would be unfortunate indeed if schools, which are considered the temples of learning and a grooming ground, were not able to ensure the safety of its students as they come out of their homes and come to the schools, which are essentially, their second homes. Schools should wake up to the core issue of ensuring the safety and security for its students and work towards a Transport policy and be even prepared to take the unpopular stand of standing up to the show of strength of various third agencies. Such a stand would only be a validation of the call for a ‘free zone for education’.