By Chitra Ahanthem
The strangest thing about life and situations in Manipur is that the more things change, the more they remain constant. The recent news of the tragic accident that left an eight year old school student dead and others injured reminded me that as a mother to a young school going child, the issue of the safety of school children as they are ferried in their school vans is constant cause of worry. An earlier Footnotes written way back in 2011 had pointed out how even toddlers are being packed inside vehicles for play school or kindergarten class, no matter if they are too small to be sitting in a vehicle unattended by adults. 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. That earlier piece had expressed my disquiet and dismay over how 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. It is all too common to see three or even four children sitting in the front seat, which I am sure is a common sight. At one point of time, I did a headcount of the number of children in my son’s earlier school van and found that there were a total of 21 excluding
the van driver! Such a number flouts basic safety standards as the front passenger seat should have minimum of 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.
On May 23 last year, 14 school going 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. When talks veered towards limiting the number of children in school vans raised its head, van driver associations took affront and went on an emotional trip with ‘how will we feed ourselves?’ backed up by aggressive voices on stopping their services etc. No one thought of calling their bluff pointing out that the lives of young children cannot be compromised in the name of giving a means for earning money. 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.
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. Apart from the intervention from the Apex Court mentioned earlier, various state laws are in place limiting the number of children in school buses and vans. It definitely is time the concerned authority in Manipur stepped in to ensure that tragedies involving school children take place.