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Kids’ safety: Govt walks the tightrope

A government resolution issued on November 18 makes school principals responsible for safe transportation of children to school and back home.

POLICY AFTER TWO YEARS<\b>

The origin of the latest GR dates back to 2011,when the state government came up with the Maharashtra Motor Vehicles (Regulations for School Buses) Rules,2011. The guidelines mandated a slew of reforms,including a transport committee to be set up by every school in the state to ensure the school bus operator and the bus driver had necessary permissions and licences,district committees to monitor the safety of these buses,special permits to operate school buses,etc. It was also made mandatory for buses to carry fire extinguishers and first-aid kits. As per these rules,a vehicle having a minimum of 12 seats could be designated as the school bus.

“The implementation was the responsibility of two departments – the Regional Transport Office (RTO) and the education department. Accordingly,the policy part,as applicable to schools,was given to the education department to translate it from English into Marathi and circulate the same to schools along with the original English document,” said Indrani Malkani,member of the committee set up by the state government to formulate the new policy.

“The translated Marathi document had several errors,which needed to be corrected. It took the education department two years to come out with the final policy document in Marathi. Hence,this is not a new policy or a revised one,” said Malkani.

GUIDELINES MISUNDERSTOOD?<\b>

The guidelines stipulate that the school principal “shall be responsible for safe transportation of schoolchildren and take appropriate steps for day-to-day supervision of the same. It further says that every school will have a transport committee to ensure safe transportation of schoolchildren,work out transportation fees area-wise,identify bus stops and vehicle fitness. It will have to meet every six months prior to the commencement of each semester. The school will have to enter into a Common Standard Agreement (CSA) with the transporters and administer the school bus service through the bus administrator.

“The committee shall be headed by school principal and shall have one PTA representative as well as the bus administrator of the school,traffic/police inspector of the respective area,inspector of motor vehicle or assistant inspector of motor vehicle of that area,education inspector,representative of bus contractor and representative of local authority,” says the GR issued on November 18.

Several school principals in the city,however,say they cannot be held responsible for the safety of each and every student when it comes to transport and that it is very difficult to ensure students will only use school buses. “The primary role of a principal is that of an academician and they need to focus on academics. How can we be made responsible for something over which we have no control? Once the bus leaves the school premises,how do we keep a check on them?” said the principal of a well-known school in the western suburbs.

The GR also stipulates a declaration for the use of school bus service by students,which has to be signed by the parent or guardian. It states that the school would not incur any liability,legal or financial,in connection with the the bus service and the students and parents and guardians,who avail of this facility,will be deemed to ‘accept’ and ‘acknowledge’ this.

“The school is providing bus service purely as a facilitator and undertakes no responsibility and liability for any loss or injury that may be sustained by a student or a parent availing the facility. Any responsibility or liability for negligence or breach of duty in this connection shall exclusively rest with the contractor driver or conductor,and not with the school. Parents and students shall not initiate or maintain any action against the school and hereby waive all rights and remedies against the school in this regard,” the GR declaration states.

According to Malkani,schools have to play the role of a facilitator and exercise “due diligence” by ensuring that operators furnish all details about their staff that are subsequently handed over to the local police station for verification. “Principals who are objecting to the policy have either not understood the guidelines or haven’t gone through the entire document. The document (GR) is not saying they will be held responsible if anything untoward happens outside the school. Then why are they raising an alarm?”

S K Sharma,principal secretary (transport),says though the policy is over two years old,any contentious issues raised by principals will be discussed.

Though the new policy says that no school will allow any student to come in vehicles other than school buses,it makes an exemption for students who walk to school or use public transport (excluding taxis and auto-rickshaws) or in cases where the school is unable to provide a bus route for students who are ill and require a separate arrangement for transportation as prescribed by a registered medical practitioner. It also exempts cases of emergency.

STAKEHOLDERS SPEAK<\b>

Several principals,however,say that making school buses mandatory may not be the best solution because parents may not follow it. They say parents should have the right to decide the mode of transportation for their children and ensure its safety.

According to Deepshikha Srivastava,principal of Rajhans Vidyalaya (Andheri),there are practical difficulties in implementing the new policy. “We keep sending notices to parents,advising them not to send their children on private vehicles and to avail of the school bus services instead. How can we ensure children’s safety if parents are using private means? Currently,60 per cent of our students use the school bus services,” said Srivastava.

M P Sharma,director of G D Somani School (Cuffe Parade) and executive member of the unaided schools’ forum,says it is the school’s responsibility to guarantee a student’s safety within the school premises. “But how do we guarantee the same outside the school premises? Further,a principal is essentially responsible for the teaching and non-teaching staff. The government should have taken our views into consideration before drafting any policy,” Sharma says.

Anil Garg,president of the School Bus Operators Association (SBOA),says the policy makes each stakeholder equally accountable. The SBOA operates 10,000 buses in Mumbai,catering to over 200 schools.

“We have been demanding a strong policy for the last three years and we are happy it has been finally issued in both English and Marathi. Principals head the schools and PTAs and other committees. So how can they deny their responsibility. As per new policy,all stakeholders,schools,bus operators,parents,have to accept joint responsibility and accountability. Once a year,the school has to check and verify documents. We have been signing the CSA for the last two years. We are trying to improve our services. Schools should also execute their part of the job,” he said.

mihika.basu@expressindia.com

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