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Riding to school

3 April 2017 No Comment

Neerja Singh

A typical school day for most children starts at the bus stop, hours before the formal assembly and the first period. And the bus stop is not without its drama. There is the proud parent, wishing the child a day full of luck and doing well and there is the child whose head, one hopes, is brimming with the excitement of learning and friendship. Those memories of the lumbering metallic monsters, the world going by our idle gazes through grilled windows and that fear mixed with the thrill of homework hurriedly done, a poem well learnt or a critical notebook left home – who amongst us does not remember these? Come noon and the parent is back at the stop with the inevitable query, “Did you get praise or a golden star from ma’am today?” If school be the womb of aspirations and ambitions, the school transport system is its umbilical cord!

school-bus-1 From what was an informal, easy going and confident component of a child’s world, the school transport system has transformed into a highly monitored, structured and emotionally charged space. Words of association today would be tracking, safety measures, social pollution, mandatory accountability and child rights. From staff orientation to machine maintenance and overall management, there is an entire social science involved in getting a child to and from school. The stakes are high and the stakeholders many. Little wonder then that the phrase “school transport” has become a bit of a hot potato! You have to voice it within hearing of school administrations and parents to believe the edgy response it elicits. There is the litigatory air to it moreover, what with the Supreme Court directive on conveying school going children. Given India’s diversity, there is an entire range of transport systems, practices and services offered by schools. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we are at the cusp of its evolution today. Schools are coming to grips with the rising scrutiny and responsibility they are being called upon to shoulder. No wonder then that alongside dental, personal, social hygiene, schools are suddenly talking “bus hygiene”!

There are two kinds of schools, broadly speaking: those that own their own fleet of buses and others that mix and match. The third, with a parent population that personally cart their children has all but disappeared. A reliable, well-connected and efficiently managed school transport system has become a primary factor in school selection by parents today.

It is not surprising therefore that even at a school on the outskirts of Gandhinagar called the Sahajanand School of Achiever, catering primarily to a rural, agrarian economy, 90 percent of their students use school transport, the remaining 10 percent constituting the boys’ hostel strength. Students come from as far as 35 Km in three of the school buses with a seating capacity of 52 each. The school charges them a bus fee to the tune of Rs 4000/- for a period of six months. Surrounded by farmlands, the school is replete with the refreshing sounds of nature. And in keeping with the environs – birds chirping in their plentiful trees bordering the organic farm they are experimenting with – the school is serviced by an additional 20 “Eco Vans”, a euphemism for the Maruti Eeco variant! Mrs Sathi Venugopal, the Principal, confirms that their buses are fitted with the GPRS and that a tracking system is in place. The teachers also use the school transport at a 50 percent charge. There is a perception that their student demographics make them more amenable to authority, barely posing any disciplinary challenges during school travel. Sturdy in bearing and respectful of all that their school offers, the children are seen to be harbouring a hunger to learn and move ahead in life.

Sahajanand School of Achiever carries out regular orientations for their drivers and conductors, a particular emphasis being on the use of pan masala while on duty. There is a transport manager in place. But like all systems human, it is a constant struggle to keep the transport system fighting fit. A typical school’s optimistic self-analysis may find a sobering down in a few parental observations. One has to stand barely 10 minutes around the average bus stop and parents are happy to volunteer their views. Absence of conductors in the buses, shabby windows, lack of first aid boxes, discipline issues, non-responsive management, driver mobility…these are the areas all stakeholders struggle with.

school-bus-2 The Supreme Court of India directives for School Bus Operations cover everything from the exterior of the bus to the fixture and furniture inside, the manpower in the bus, facilities, permits as well as arrangements in the school. Some salient features include installation of tamper proof electronic speed governors with maximum speed limit fixed at 40 km per hour. No bus should carry children below 12 years in excess of one and a half times its registered seating capacity. In case of kindergarten, if an authorized person recognized mutually by the school and parents, does not come to pick the child from the halting points and such, the child shall be taken back to the school and the parents duly called. The driver must hold a license for driving heavy motor vehicles and wear uniform while driving. It is expected that schools shall make their staff members and students aware of their duties and responsibilities related to the conveyance. School principals and head mistresses detail teachers and ayahs to supervise the boarding or alighting of students from the school bus or van. Girl students are to be assisted only by the ayahs. It is again expected of schools to sensitize the teachers and students to the importance of road safety. The safe transportation of students to and from school is a matter of concern for all and the CBSE has modified its Affiliation Bye-laws to include transport precautions. The point no. 8.5 of Chapter II of Affiliation Bye-laws reads: “The School would scrupulously observe prescription from the municipal authority/district collectorate/transport department regarding drinking water, fire safety and transport precautions in the school.”

Take the Delhi Public School, Gandhinagar, a premier school franchise. It operates a fleet of 61 buses, their capacity ranging from 32 to 50 students. Mr Dharmesh Swadia, their Transport-in-charge, shares his experience with a sense of pride. Nearly 99 percent of their students and teachers use the school transport. While the students pay on average Rs 1900/- per month, depending on the distance they travel, anywhere from 10 km to 30 km, the service is offered free to the teachers. Mr Swadia manages a staff of about 130, inclusive of five maintenance supervisors, a driver/conductor-in-charge, a fuel-in-charge and a transport supervisor. A total of three foremen have been hired to provide regular maintenance of the buses inside the school. DPS operates some 50 routes, every bus logging out at the gate in a systematic manner. It is a practice to position one or two vacant buses at the points of concentration on these routes for a quick recovery trip should there be an emergency or breakdown. The army of drivers and conductors mostly come from nearby villagers and operate multitask schedules to augment their salaries ranging from Rs 7000/- to 9000/- per month. Every driver and conductor undergoes police verification. The school is cautious, insisting on a school reference for new entrants. There are attendance registers for students travelling in these buses. Parents who come to pick them up are expected to carry parent IDs, particularly during the initial months of familiarization. Parents are also given the phone numbers of their child’s driver and bus conductor. The school provides a Rs 50/- phone recharge to the conductor per month for this communication. Regular practices include maintaining student lists and attendance registers in the buses, special racks for the school bags, having the smaller children sit with the older girls bolsters an overall transport health. Mr Swadia says that they have had authorized dealers of Tata Motors conduct orientation and training, specific to the school transport system. Kataria Autos and Cargo Motors are among the companies that have taken workshops focussing on bus safety, traffic rules, emergency handling, first aid and fire extinguishing. As to transport technology, he admits that their experience with the GPRS was not very successful on account of connectivity problems. The school is however, exploring the use of cameras and attendance chips to bolster safety and comfort for its travelling community. It was not uncommon apparently for Mr Swadia to receive calls from other commuters reporting speeding by their bus drivers. The school responds promptly by having the errant bus driver pull up to the side for an impromptu telephonic warning and counselling. A conclusive comment on the school’s transport system is the last page of the school prospectus with bullet points under the heading, in bold red letters: “School Transport Rules.”

How about the government schools? In Gandhinagar alone, there are some 33 of these. A quick survey of a few like the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Secondary and Higher Secondary School, Sector 7, Mahatma Gandhi Vidyamandir Secondary and Higher Secondary School, Sector 16 and two more at Borij and in Sector 20 reveal the facilities including free transport made available to students under the Gujarat Government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Mission. “Although several neighbouring children either walk or cycle to their school, the authorities can present deserving cases for a sanction of Rs 300/- towards transport money,” confirms Mrs Kailas Gameti, Headmistress of the Government School in Sector 20.

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Raised in 1977, the Air Force School, Gandhinagar charges on average Rs 1100/- per annum from its LKG to fifth graders, depending upon the distance travelled. The school operates two buses that are maintained and serviced by the mechanical transport as well as the education sections. Their bus personnel wear uniforms and the children receive boarding and alighting assistance. Police verification and vetting of the conductors is carried out thoroughly since they are civilian casual labour against the drivers who are air warriors. The drivers are given an authorization to drive school vehicles by the MT section. There is sensitivity to orientation for the conductors in particular, who happen to be daily wagers. Of the 256 students, some 124 use the school transport system. The school has worked out a system of collecting bus passes and returning them every day as one of many ways of keeping track of the children. Recovery and substitution during breakdowns are smoothly handled courtesy the resources available with the MT section.

There are schools however, that have applied creative solutions to iron out niggling issues arising from time to time. The BAPS Swami Narayan Vidya Mandir, a Gujarat State Board school, hosts 810 students, 225 of whom live in the hostel. The day scholars come from as far as Bopal, Vastral, and Bapu Nagar, the longest distance being a little over 30 km. The school manages a fleet of 16 buses with differing seating capacity ranging from 25 and 46 to 56. The subsidized transport fees, depending on the distance, works to about Rs 11,000/- per annum. Unlike some schools where the driver and conductor community is drawn from a contractor and are on daily wages, this school’s transport staff is on their rolls. They take their meals at school and volunteer their free time towards administrative and care taking tasks around the spacious building. Essentially an institution of the Patels, the hostel is populated largely by NRI students. The school Principal Mrs Monalisa Das shared some interesting nuggets. They have adopted a practice of having the travelling students recite multiplication tables during the ride. This compulsory activity has resulted in consolidating their oral tables, some going as far as the number 34. The teachers travel free in the buses, chanting Lord Swaminarayan’s Aarti along with the students while in transit. Enrolment age being as low as 3 plus, the teachers feel it is a good idea for the children to take a nap in the bus on the long routes.

To conclude this micro vignette of the Indian school’s transport system, quite clearly, it is the integrity of the man behind the machine that matters the most. Even though the transport department’s telephone numbers are clearly and boldly spelt out on school website, what matters is whether there is compassion and responsiveness in the voice that answers. While we debate security measures taken by schools, it would perhaps do good to wonder at the environment that prompts it!

The author is a former teacher, published author and blogger with a background and training in media. She has worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making and feature journalism. She can be reached at neersingh002@gmail.com.

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