THE state transport department today started a drive to take penal action against auto vehicles that ferried many more children to school than their capacity would permit. The campaign is in compliance with the directive of the Bombay High Court which had admitted a suo motu petition on overcrowding of school buses. About three-fourths of school-going children travel to schools in Panaji and back home by buses, vans and auto rickshaws. The vehicles carry 20% to 50% more students than their capacity allowed. The vans and auto rickshaws are seen as the biggest culprits, but the buses too are awful. According to Supreme Court guidelines, a vehicle can take 50% more students than its carrying capacity, provided the age of school children is below 12 years. However, the guidelines do not permit vehicles to carry children above 12 years exceeding the number of seats, as children above 12 years need to be treated as one person. The Bombay High Court had issued directives to the transport department to draft rules called the Goa School Bus Rules to regulate seating on school buses.
However, the rules have been far from implemented. The issue is not as simple as it seems. The biggest roadblock to the implementation is the reluctance of parents to fight the problem. The parents do not mind overcrowding as it reduces the cost of travel for their children. The vehicles that take more students than their carrying capacity charge less per student per month. The reluctance of the parents is also owing to the fact that they do not have time to drop and pick up their children at and from school. Such parental attitude makes the situation complex. It should be normally the parents who should be most concerned about the safety, health and comfort of their children. But if they do not mind, the vehicle owners take advantage of their compulsions and pack their vehicles with as many children as they want. The children are the victims of parental indifference and the vehicle owners’ greed.
Can there ever be a solution to the problem of overcrowding of school buses? If you listen to the All Goa Private School Bus Owners Association, there is nothing to worry about the safety of the children as the private buses have taken “all precautionary measures to avoid overcrowding”. They cite as proof non-occurrence of any accident or other issues on the buses ferrying children. This claim ignores the Calvim bus tragedy in which 6 children died three years ago. But the vehicle owners have a strong lobby and they are going to resist any regulation on seating. The private school bus owners say the overcrowding would not end until the government permitted them to increase their number of seats by 20-30 per cent. How can the government allow this to them? Who is going to monitor if the private school buses start carrying more children than even the augmented capacity? The bus owners justify the current overcrowding on the plea that they have to spend a lot on maintenance, insurance, taxes, loan instalments and staff salary. They might justify overcrowding in augmented-capacity buses on the ground of enhanced expenditures on these heads!
How will the transport department overcome the resistance of the vehicle owners and the indifference of parents? It needs to be noted that the transport department has been so constrained by these factors that it could not make much progress in making or enforcing the Goa School Bus Rules during the past three years. One of the ideas the transport department had was to expect parents to send their children to schools nearer their homes. Children could go walking to school, or the parents might find it easier to drop them or pick them up. At least that would not involve travelling to and from school in an overcrowded bus, van or auto rickshaw. However, parents are reluctant to accept this idea. Parents have their own idea of which school is best for their children. Now and then, another idea that comes up is: increase the number of buses, so that there are fewer auto rickshaws and vans carrying children. But the question where this idea gets stuck is: who will introduce additional buses – the Kadamba Transport Corporation or private operators? The KTC might not be in a position to be of much help. Should private operators be allowed to increase the number of school buses? As is clear, there is no easy solution to overcrowding. A middle ground has to be found through a dialogue between the transport department, vehicle owners and parents. The primary issue is children’s safety, health and comfort. Any solution must revolve around the solution of this problem.