School bus norms really tough?
By Susanna Myrtle Lazarus | Published: 19th November 2012 08:54 AM |
After widespread outrage ever since a city girl slipped and fell through a hole in the floor of her school bus and got crushed under it in July last — and the Madras High Court taking suo motu cognisance of it — the State government notified tough norms to regulate the functioning of school vehicles.
Called the Tamil Nadu Motor Vehicles (Regulation and Control of School Buses) Special Rules 2012, they came into force September 30. But the now-familiar yellow buses carting students to and from school will stay off roads across the State on Monday in protest against some of those regulations. The protest is part of a series of steps the Tamil Nadu Nursery, Primary, Matriculation and Higher Secondary Schools Association intends to take on the issue. It has already filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court, demanding that the Special Rules be stayed.
According to a representative of the association, “We have spoken to the transport commissioner and the education department and they have told us that the matter can be solved only through the courts. The strike is being held to get the government’s attention.” He added that their petition is expected to come up for hearing in the High Court on Dec 12.
But is the protest valid? Depends on whom you are talking to. While school managements and drivers and conductors have different reasons for opposing certain sections of the rules, parents overall are happy.
Schools that own and operate their own buses comply with rules for the most part, as they are held directly responsible for the safety of their students. No wonder, even before it was made mandatory, many school buses already had speed governors and annual fitness certificates (FCs) from their respective RTO offices.
While nobody has a problem with their buses wearing a yellow coat of paint, their biggest grouse is about the age criteria and eligibility of drivers and attendants. Rules stipulate that the driver must have a valid licence for the vehicle he intends to drive and a minimum driving experience of five years in similar category of vehicles. He should also not have been challaned more than twice a year for offences like red light jumping, violation of lane discipline or allowing unauthorised person behind the wheel. Besides, he should not have been challaned ever for overspeeding, drunken driving and fatality because of dangerous driving.
The norms for attendants are equally tough. Each school bus must have an attendant with a valid conductor licence while transporting students. The attendant must be within the age group of 21-50 years, should be medically fit, must be the first one to get off the bus at each stop and facilitate children’s entry or exit. If the school bus carries girl students alone, the attendant must be female.
Shalini R*, principal of a school in the suburbs, says, “All of our drivers have the required five years of experience. After they retire, we will have some trouble in finding replacements. We too look for experienced drivers, but are forced to hire freshers sometimes.” She is uneasy about the age limit of 50 years for attendants, saying it has narrowed their pool of workers. “We understand that they need to be physically fit. But now, even if they are over 50 but fit, we will have to find a replacement,” she says.
Also, some schools claim that the stipulation on woman attendants in buses carrying girls, has put their human resources under strain. Christina L, vice principal of a girls’ school, says, “We have not been able to appoint anyone new because of the short notice. So, we have asked our ayahs to take up the extra work. That means they come to school at 6.30 am and leave only after the trips are over, sometimes even at 6 pm. It is difficult for them.”
Another norm — formation of school-level transport committees — is giving the institutions a headache. “We are willing to and have made all the specified changes in the buses, even on the ones we have on lease. But it is not as easy to convince parents to be part of a committee and ensure that they spend time on meetings,” rues principal R Krishnan*.
Parents all cheer
Getting children ready and to the pick-up point on time is a daily rush for parents. Martin, parent of two girls who study in an Adyar school, says the new regulations definitely makes the children safer and eases the tension for parents. “Earlier when we lived in Besant Nagar, it was possible to send the children by school bus. As we recently moved to Pallavaram, we have arranged an autorickshaw for their transport,” he says. While his daughters are the only passengers on their three-wheeler, there are numerous autos that carry as many as eight children in at a time, packed like sardines. This happens with students of reputed city schools as well. “What about the safety of those children? The government should not wait for an accident to happen before they enforce rules,” says Martin.
Private vehicles are another mode of transport – this can mean any vehicle from an Omni to bigger vans – that do not fall under regulations. Sharadha Sukumar, whose son used to travel by a private van till last year, says, “A private van is definitely more cost effective. But after a few months, the van driver started taking in students way beyond his vehicle’s capacity. Though I spoke to him about safety, he was intent on making a quick buck; so I had to opt for a school bus because it was a safer option.”
The new rules, she says, have reinforced her belief that school transport is always better. “Parents can always have a friendly chat with the school authorities and inspect the bus for their own satisfaction,” she says. Sharadha suggests the policemen who regulate traffic outside schools haul up private van and auto drivers for overloading. “This does not require new rules, just the proper enforcement of rules that already exist,” she says. Are traffic cops listening?
K Babu* has been driving a school bus for the past three years without any accident. However, the new rules have threatened his livelihood – this was his first job, and he does not have the minimum required experience of five years. “My school management is yet to take a call, so I still have my job. They say they will decide after the court takes a position on it. I am good at my work and I need it as well,” he says, as a worried tone creeps into his voice. The writ petition contends that a whole bunch of rules on buses, drivers and attendants are “arbitrary and illegal”. The moment license is granted under the Motor Vehicles Act, it implies that the authority has satisfied himself with the capacity and qualification of the person who has been granted the licence, the petition argues. In other words, our RTOs are paragons of virtue and the driving licence can’t be bought through a tout. Is that really the case? Whom are we kidding?
Besides, a section of the drivers question the structural changes that have been mandated. “A grill has been introduced between the driver’s cabin and the children. In my opinion, it is intrusive. For, in case of any emergency, the grill would prevent the driver from helping the children immediately,” says Muthu. The alterations to the footboard and window grills make sense, although emergency exit provisions in the windows would be more helpful, suggests Kannan. “In most accidents, the bus tends to fall on its side. An exit at the back of the bus would be helpful to those who sitting in the rear,” he reasons.
* Names changed