Srinagar: Scores of vans are parked in a straight line in front of the main gate of the Burn Hall School in Sonwar, Srinagar. The drivers of these vans, men of various ages, have divided themselves into small groups and gossip among themselves to pass the time.
The groups disband the moment the school bell rings. The drivers rush towards their own vans and go one by one inside the school premises. Minutes later, they come out matching the footsteps of small children who carry school bags on their shoulders.
The drivers then carefully lift these kids and make them comfortable on their respective seats before setting out. The seats are modified: the two main seats do not have recliners, and another seat has been installed between the two.
A couple of days ago, private school vans made headlines in local media after traffic police seized over 20 vans in Srinagar. The Superintendent of Traffic Police, Tahir Saleem, claimed that the vans had violated several regulations, including overloading and over speeding.
The police action led drivers to go on a day-long strike, besides staging a protest at Press Enclave here in Srinagar. The drivers termed the seizure of their vehicles as ‘harassment’.
The SSP later appealed to parents to verify the norms of the vehicles used for ferrying school-going children. He urged them to demand to see that the driver had a valid driving license with five years’ driving experience and that the vehicle had adequate seating capacity, along with adequate space for school bags, and a first aid box and a fire extinguisher inside as well. He also asked drivers to ensure that they painted their vans yellow.
Adil Ahmad, a van driver waiting outside Burn Hall, believes that the traffic department might have seized the vans for genuine reasons. “I won’t say there are no violators. There are a few drivers who violate the norms, but that does not mean everyone is guilty. Can traffic police generalise the entire situation based on fringe elements?” he questioned. “To understand the issue, one has to think in a larger perspective so as to tackle the matter,” he added.
Every time a van driver in the city centre is found violating traffic norms, Adil claims that fingers are raised on the drivers that operate from three big schools. “Trust me, private vans that operate from Biscoe-Mallinson, Burn Hall and Convent abide by traffic norms. Those who violate regulations belong to other areas, and we become victims unnecessarily,” he said.
Another van driver, Bilal Ahmad, said that they abide by the norms the traffic police issued in 2015 when Maqsood-ud-Zaman was the Senior Superintendent of Traffic Police, Srinagar. “We were asked to remove gas kits and we initially felt that the authorities were curbing us, but he (Zaman) made us understand how dangerous gas cylinders could be for all of us, including the children,” said Bilal, adding, “We formed an association and a team that checked whether everyone had removed gas.”
According to Bilal, Zaman fixed the maximum number of 13 kids so the vans would avoid congestion. Several parents had been complaining on social media that their children were being ferried in the vans like cattle. Bilal said that the van drivers were not alone to be blamed for the vans’ overloading as several parents would force them to accommodate their children despite knowing their vehicle’s exact capacity. “Most of them have to say no now-a-days, but a few parents have developed a close bonding with the drivers, so they cannot refuse their requests.”
Nazir Ahmad, the president of the Private School Vans Association, said that the association had come into existence during 2015 to put an end to the injustice done to the small children whom the vans transported. “We inform the traffic police on their WhatsApp group about vehicles that violate the norms, but no one takes action against them,” he said.
Nazir said that they will follow the traffic norm properly by March as it cannot be done within days. “Primary schools are closing from 2nd December and by March we will ensure we will ensure everything is done as per government officials,” he said.
He said that the only issue they are facing presently is painting their vehicles yellow. “If we paint our vehicles yellow we do not know under what category (permit) we shall be allowed to operate our vans. We will take the issue with regional transport authorities and see what they will have to say about it,” he said.
Nazir said that there are around 4,000 families dependent on the trade. “We request government authorities to consider our cases on humanitarian bases by regulating us and allow us to function in a legal way as we don’t have any other profession. We are all educated and chose this profession because we did not find jobs anywhere. If our vehicles are declared illegal, our lives would be ruined.”
The Superintendent of Traffic Police, Srinagar, told Kashmir Reader that the department has given the van drivers 20 days to ensure they abide by traffic norms. “We have issued norms and they will have to fulfil them… If we find anyone carrying more than 13 children and anyone operating vans with gas cylinders, the vehicle will be seized,” he said.
Regional Transport Officer, Farooq Ahmad Rather, told Kashmir Reader that they cannot give road permits to the vans because they are not commercial vehicles. “There is a clear direction from the Supreme Court, and we have to work according to it. Vans cannot be allowed to ferry children as they are meant to ferry staff,” he said.