Last week 14 children ended up getting admitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences after a fainting spell inside their school van. 3 more children were seated in the front of the van and the fainting spell was more likely caused by suffocation due to crowding and the lack of air circulation. With school children including toddlers being carried to their day care centers and kindergarten school being stuffed to capacity with some vans reaching 20 in number, there is a drastic and urgent need for a proper school transport policy now more than ever. IFP has earlier brought up the issue of young and growing up children and youths being bundled into school vans as one needing to be tackled with foresight and not wait for accidents to happen. The incident last week ought to serve as a warning to educational institutions to be firm when it comes to managing the van associations that run the transport of school children. That it was something waiting to happen does not lessen the degree of carelessness on the part of various stakeholders: parents for not demanding strongly enough that on the fare they pay, their children should be seated comfortably and securely; the school management authority for confining itself to matters within the realm of their school and not being involved in the welfare of the school children during the transportation aspect; the van association for not keeping a ceiling on the number of students each vehicle can carry; the Education Department for not looking into this area and the Transport Department for not bothering enough. The lack of pro-activeness by the all too important stakeholders has only contributed to the spectacle of school vans being packed beyond their capacity. This is not to point out only to existing van services as the villains of the piece for even with school buses, it is common to see students having to fight for seating and many having to stand every day. Both do not have adult supervisors to help in crossing the street or any system of ensuring that students reach their homes.
Some parents may feel uneasy about seeing their children all cramped inside a van but are often cautious about pursuing the matter on a serious note with school authorities often fearing fee hikes or even the possibility of being asked to drop their children themselves. These parents caught up in the rush and demands of their own career and other family duties 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. With school van fares starting from a minimum rate of over rupees 600 per child, it is the children who are shortchanged for they do not get comfortable seating. Often, two to three children are made to sit in the front seat when the front seat should be seating the oldest children in the group strapped with the seat belt, while small wooden benches are put at the back to have as many students as possible. Overfilling school vans 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 resulting in more exhaustion, lack of playtime and disrupting their time cycles for eating, resting and studying. It should also be noted that adolescent young people including both boys and girls are packed into vans for long hours on the road.
The manner in which school authorities wash off their hands when it comes to putting a ceiling on the number of children per van or school bus by saying that it is the van/bus association that has the final say in the matter smacks of total indifference and negligence. Such associations should not be given the position or the carte blanche of calling the shots over the safety of children for School transport services also falls under a consumer service and any violation of rules must be reprimanded. The Supreme Court had made it mandatory for carrying schoolchildren with first aid boxes, fire extinguishers, grills on windows, school bag tray under the seat and provision for water. Apart from the intervention from the Apex Court, various state laws are in place limiting the number of children in school buses and vans. What happened last week is a wake up call to all stakeholders to get its act right and act on the issue. On this note, it is encouraging to see the All Manipur Student’s Guardians Organization and the Manipur Alliance for Child Rights adding their voice on the safety of school children. It is time to add strength to such voices and formulate a concrete law or policy before something untoward happens.