Srinagar: School vans fitted with LPG gas kits and overcrowded beyond capacity are putting the lives of little children that travel in them at risk. Despite Supreme Court guidelines on safety measures that must be in place, there is barely a school van that follows these directions. Overspeeding and inexperienced drivers pose another risk. Most school managements are either unaware of the Supreme Court guidelines or prefer to turn a blind eye to the danger they are putting children in.
At 3pm on one of the hottest days of this summer, 23-year-old Sajad is driving a van with more than 15 children, some as young as two, crammed on to a makeshift wooden shaft and sweating profusely. In the packed street of Lal Chowk, Sajad is pressing the horn continuously to somehow sneak past the vehicles. Sajad says he is always in a tearing hurry because he is constantly trying to evade the eyes of traffic cops.
“They either ask for bribe or inflict hefty fines on us for carrying more than 15 children in the van,” Sajad, who lives in the suburbs of Srinagar, explained.
SSP Traffic Maqsood Zaman informed that the Supreme Court guidelines allow a school van to carry children at one-and-a-half times the capacity of the van for seating adults. “This means that vans with a capacity of 8 passengers can carry 13 or 14 children,” the SSP said.
School vans in the city usually flout this guideline and carry children at twice their capacity, two children for each passenger seat. Apart from this, as Sajad said, “more than 60% school vans have gas kits installed in them.” These gas kits are dangerous because they can explode. For a van with a gas kit attached, it is mandatory to have a fire extinguisher in the vehicle. Very few vans actually have them.
Parents have raised concerns about these overcrowded and fitted-with-gas-kits school vans. Dr Wamik, a pediatrician, advises parents to try pick and drop their children in their own cars. “Thesevans are so crammed that children can develop serious health problems,” he said.
Narrating an incident, Dr Wamik said that a few days ago a couple visited his clinic. Their two-year-old daughter who went in a van to a crèche-cum-preparatory school had become unconscious in thevan due to suffocation. “The child had fallen down from the makeshift wooden seat and other children had fallen on her. This had blocked her breathing and she had lost consciousness,” Dr Wamik said.
Mentioning the flouting of another Supreme Court guideline, Khawaja Nasir, the uncle of the girl who had fallen unconscious, said that school vans do not have a qualified attendant for the children. “The driver did not know about her condition till she reached home, because that day the teacher who accompanies them in the van was on leave. When we saw her in the driver’s lap we thought she was dead. Only when the doctor said there was no reason to worry, we breathed a sigh of relief,” Nasir said.
Nasir expressed concern at the lack of fire extinguishers in vans. “The temporary gas kit in the van is like a ticking bomb. I have always complained to the drivers about it but they seldom pay heed to it,” he said.
Acknowledging the hazards that gas kits pose to the lives of children, Sajad said that it was the high price of petrol that forced drivers to use gas instead. He said his conscience had troubled him for this and he was looking for a new job. “As soon as I find a new means of sustenance I will stop driving school vans. I know it is haram but I don’t have any other means of livelihood,” he said claiming helplessness. He also mentioned the discomfort that children experience on the wooden shafts that are placed between the seats to accommodate more children.
Sajad blamed fellow drivers for not caring about the safety of children. “Most of them drive very fast and are not well acquainted with driving,” he said.
Sajad mentioned that one driver got away when a boy died due to his lack of driving skills. “The family of the boy did not pursue the case against the driver, despite it being ascertained by the police that the driver of the van was at fault,” Sajad said.
The principal of a leading preparatory school in Srinagar turned out to be unaware of Supreme Court guidelines. The person in charge of the school transport confidently asserted, “Our vans are not overcrowded. They only carry 18 children.” When asked what vans the school used, he mentioned Maruti Eco and Maruti Omni. These vans have a passenger capacity of eight each.