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Danger signs: How school buses in the capital are violating safety guidelines

The murder of a boy at Ryan International School and the subsequent arrest of a bus conductor have thrown up questions on verification of school bus staff, and whether rules are followed while ferrying children. The Indian Express looks at the lapses in the system.

Written by Shradha Chettri , Aranya Shankar , Sakshi Dayal | New Delhi |
Updated: June 25, 2018 4:33:43 pm
Ryan International School murder case, Ryan murder case, Pradyumn murder case, Delhi Schools, Safety of school children, school children safety, safety of children, School buses in Delhi, Delhi school buses safety, School Bus safety guidelines, Supreme Court safety guidelines on school buses, Delhi news, Indian Express News One of the most glaring issues is the absence of a conductor on most buses, despite the 1997 Supreme Court guidelines stating that “the driver should be accompanied by a conductor holding effective conductor’s licence”.

Conductors without licences, lackadaisical background checks and ill-equipped buses — a look at transport services of over two dozen schools in Delhi and Gurgaon has thrown up some worrying facts. The Indian Express spoke to school authorities, contractors, parents and bus staff, and discovered flagrant violation of several rules and regulations put in place by various authorities.

On September 8, a bus conductor working with Ryan International School’s Bhondsi branch was arrested for allegedly killing a seven-year-old inside the school washroom, raising questions on whether due process was followed in hiring the man, who had earlier worked as a driver with another school till his licence expired.

READ | There have been lapses… will now put onus on principals: Manish Sisodia on safety of school children

No conductors, no licences

To ferry children to and from home, schools either purchase a fleet of buses, take the vehicles on contract, or tie up with the Delhi Transport Corporation. Some rely on the contractor to provide the bus staff, while others either do the hiring themselves or rope in a placement agency. One of the most glaring issues is the absence of a conductor on most buses, despite the 1997 Supreme Court guidelines stating that “the driver should be accompanied by a conductor holding effective conductor’s licence”.

A conductor’s licence is issued by the transport department, and is important because one has to have studied till Class X to be eligible. This also helps keep a database of all conductors who work at schools, an official explained. But many schools and agencies that supply buses are oblivious of this rule. “Requirement for a conductor was not conveyed to us, so we do not have them. However, for the driver, we do everything — a thorough check of his past record as well as police verification,” said Vijay from Anand Travels, which supplies buses to schools in south Delhi.

Like other companies, Anand Travels gets details of buses required from a sub-contractor, who has secured a contract from the school. Private buses are usually procured through a tendering process, and the bus operator who wins the contract supplies buses to schools. In some cases, these operators further outsource work to private travel agencies, which have a fleet of buses. Each bus staffer is supposed to submit an identity proof, which is also submitted to the police for a background check.

READ | Ryan International School reopens for first time since student’s murder on campus

A principal of a south Delhi school said that while they don’t have conductors, “they have a guard and a teacher who accompany the children”. Sanjeev Khanna, a trustee of Maxfort School, which has a chain of schools in west Delhi, was also unaware of the need for conductors. “There is no awareness about what a conductor means in a school bus since no ticketing is happening. But now we are trying to get the documentation done,” he said.

Since the September 8 murder at Ryan school, the enforcement wing of the Delhi government has impounded over 200 school buses as their conductors did not have licences. Vijay of Anand Travels, however, sheds light on the reality: “The people we employ as drivers and conductors are mostly illiterate. Why will an educated man want to do this job? We look at their experience and make sure they don’t drink. What more can we do?”

Jyoti Arora, principal of Mount Abu Public School, said the school has around 10 buses and hires drivers and conductors through a placement agency. “They take care of the entire recruitment and verification process,” Arora said. The school, like many others The Indian Express spoke to, did not disclose the name of the placement agency.

Checks and balances

In Gurgaon, where the Class II boy was murdered on September 8, transport authority officials said the situation is more alarming. In a campaign conducted last year by the Regional Transport Authority (RTA), several prominent schools were found to be erring when it came to arrangements for safety and security of students during the commute. “The most common oversight found was lapses in verification of staff — drivers as well as conductors. In several instances, the verification process was found to be missing altogether, especially for privately hired buses,” a source who supervised the campaign said.

The ‘Guidelines for Safety of Children in Schools’, issued by Gurgaon Police, state: “It is the responsibility of the school to ensure that all transport staff, even if provided by contractors, have been verified. The school must maintain a copy of police verification for such staff, with details of contacts of their hometown, as well as two referees from hometown and two referees from Gurgaon (sic).”

Many schools, however, fail to do this, said a source, adding that institutions also frequently violate other conditions listed in the guidelines, such as the need for “working speed governors”. “When they use private companies to provide transportation to students, this happens even more,” an RTA source said. “We try to keep an eye on things and conduct checks on a regular basis, but our manpower is limited.”

While these are issues at the policy level, violation of guidelines are most evident in terms of facilities buses are supposed to have. All school buses should have a board of size 400 mm x 400 mm secured on the front and rear, to display the fact that the vehicle is used to ferry children. The colour of the board should be golden yellow on which an iconographic representation of two school children — one girl and one boy — is supposed to be painted in black.

Most school buses don’t have this. In the case of several private buses, The Indian Express found the name of the school written on a white paper with black ink, hardly legible from afar. This amounts to violation of the Supreme Court guidelines framed in 1997, after a school bus plunged into the Yamuna at Wazirabad, killing 28 students.

Buses should also be equipped with a first-aid box, fire extinguisher, CCTV, GPS and amber flashing lights on the top four corners, to be activated when children are boarding or deboarding. “The transport in-charge of the school takes care of all these provisions. Even before buses start, these are checked every day,” said Priyanka Mehta, principal of Amity International School in Mayur Vihar.

However, most of the buses The Indian Express checked had mandatory facilities missing. The parent of a child in Gurgaon’s DAV Public School claimed that the school “frequently changes the bus staff”. However, Charu Maini, principal of the school, said, “We supervise the staff… They may have changed once in a while if a person was unwell or on leave, but there is no truth to the allegation that staff is changed regularly.”

Another major violation is that drivers who are challaned often continue to operate. According to rules, a school bus driver should not be challaned more than twice in a calendar year. But neither the school nor the bus operators maintain a tab of this, an official said. According to data from the Delhi traffic police, in the last one year, 32 school bus drivers have been challaned. The traffic department received 21 complaints against school buses between March and December last year.

Risky alternative

Perhaps even more dangerous are private cabs provided by schools, notorious for speeding, stuffing too many children into the vehicle, and even making them sit on CNG cylinders. In April, a four-year-old girl died after a school van reversed into her in Shakarpur. In July, a four-year-old girl was allegedly raped by her school van driver, who was subsequently arrested from Baba Haridas Nagar.

Brijesh Goswami, whose daughter studies in Class I at Queen Mary’s School in Model Town, had been using such vans till last week. He has now discontinued the service. Goswami alleged he has written to the school authorities several times regarding safety of children in these vans, but his complaints have fallen on deaf ears. “These vans are always overloaded. The Supreme Court has said not more than nine students can be made to sit in a van, but there are as many as 14 in each one. Plus, the driver always has earphones on,” he said. The school principal did not respond to queries about these issues.

While the government had come out with a policy in 2007 to regulate cabs, little progress has been made since then. Now, against the backdrop of the Ryan incident, the Delhi government has formed a committee to draft rules to ensure safety and security in schools.

Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal Springdales Pusa Road, who is a member of this committee, said schools need to have a “culture of safety”. She added that her school buses have teachers, helpers, bus monitors and attendance sheets. The school has a total of 35 toilets — and the ones for staff, including drivers and conductors, are separate. Bal Bharati Public School, Ganga Ram Road, has also started a fresh security audit.

M S Mathur, chairman of Mayur Public School in IP Extension, said, “Drivers and conductors already had a separate washroom, but we are now creating a cold water facility for them at the gate… We have to be careful because buses are very vulnerable points for students, especially when they board and deboard.”

Meanwhile, news of the murder has shaken 42-year-old Gaffar, who has been driving a school bus at Amity International School in south Delhi for 15 years. Gaffar shuddered to think that someone from his field could kill a child: “One person commits a crime and now the entire driving fraternity is being viewed suspiciously.”

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