Near the bustling Azadpur Mandi area of north Delhi, a 10-year-old is waiting anxiously for his mini-bus. For 7 in the morning, the loud calls from overeager vendors and the blaring horns of loaded trucks are quite overwhelming. The Rukmini Devi Jaipuria Public School in Civil Lines is 7 km away, and the Class VI student has been taking the mini-bus to commute for the last two years.
“It is the convenience of being picked up from home,” says the mother, explaining her choice of the mini-bus over a school bus. The monthly fee of Rs 2,000 is “affordable” too.
A loud horn marks the arrival of the bus. As she sees off her child, there are eight students already on the bus, which has a maximum capacity of 21. There is no attendant.
A fortnight ago, a mini-bus with 27 children from Rukmini Devi and another school in Civil Lines, Victoria Girls, had overturned near the Kashmere Gate area, leaving 21 injured. Soon after, Education Minister and Delhi’s Deputy CM Manish Sisodia had called children taking such private transportation as being in the “danger zone”.
The mother, as do other parents, know about the accident. Would that make her reconsider taking the mini-bus? “It was a one-off incident,” she shrugs.
Earlier, in January 2013, the Delhi government had issued a set of 23 rules for plying school buses after a speeding van ferrying students had collided with a car, killing a five-year-old girl. This included an identity card for drivers and a compulsory conductor, apart from a first-aid box, fire-extinguisher and bag racks on buses.
The mini-bus has none of the above. Asked about the risks, another parent who did not wish to be named said, “We know the driver, he takes care of the children well.”
Mukherjee Nagar is the second stop. Six students get on here, with the mini-bus now making its way towards north-east Delhi. At the Gautam Puri stop, it takes in two more students, leaving just three vacant seats. At the next stop in Brahmapuri there is little space for the 12 children lined up outside. But Darshan, 41, who has been working as a driver for 12 years, knows how to make them “fit in”. He takes the bags of some of the students and pushes them under the seats, asks a few junior students, including the 10-year-old from Azadpur, to move to the bigger seat at the back, and adjusts all the 30 students. Twenty minutes later and almost bursting at the seams now, the mini-bus has another halt before it reaches the school. At the last stop in Shashtri Park, where seven students are waiting, Darshan parks and begins the “adjustment” process again. Four students simply tear through the front rows, hand their bags to those who have managed a seat and finally just lean on the edge of the seat to give an impression of being seated. The other three move near the driver’s cabin.
According to a 2013 estimate by the Delhi Contract Bus Association, close to 4,200 school buses ferry 16 lakh students in Delhi each day. But this does not include the private mini-buses and vans.
“Most of the buses are full, but what are the transportation options?” says a parent whose child goes to Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya in Civil Lines.
After crossing three signals, the bus finally enters the Civil Lines area. Packed well beyond its capacity, it hasn’t been stopped at any point by traffic cops. “We always fine drivers who overspeed, and keep a check on overcrowding,” asserts traffic inspector Rakesh Kumar.
After a 40-minute ride, the 10-year-old from Azadpur has reached Rukmini Devi Jaipuria Public School.
“At most, we can be there when the students arrive, how can we control the overcrowding?” says Vandana Singh, the headmistress of the junior wing of Rukmini Devi Jaipuria School (referred to as Beni Prasad Jaipuria Preparatory School), which has no official school buses. So 850 students of the junior school and 1,400 of its senior school all use private transportation.
Singh claims parents don’t want school buses. “We tried to convince them last year. If it was our bus, we would have had an attendant,” she says. More than overcrowding, the school says it is worried about the security of the children. “We have a record of drivers of these private buses, but parents often change them without informing us,” Singh says.
At Victoria Girls Senior Secondary School, some of whose students suffered injuries in the July 15 accident, there are a few school buses, but private mini-buses still form a large part of the transportation system (the school refused to give details).
The drivers don’t think the accident of 27 students should worry anyone on the matter of security. “We ensure students are safe and seated,” says Anil Kumar, 32, who ferries students to six schools in the Civil Lines area.
A little before 1 pm, the private mini-buses and vans again begin to queue up outside Rukmini Devi Jaipuria Public School. As the bell goes off, a hoard of students takes over the street nearby. Crammed in a corner, the 10-year-old from Azadpur sticks his head out of the window, trying to get some air. It’s another 40 minutes before he gets home.