A girl attends a class at a makeshift school in Islamabad. — Photo by AP
When she was five years old, my granddaughter failed to reach home from her Gulshan-i-Iqbal school. It was a burning summer day, and her mother thought, maybe, the van was caught in a traffic jam, or perhaps the school management had delayed the kids’ departure for some reason.
When she rang up the school, she was told that the van had departed on time. Panicky, she rang up other parents, and they told her their daughters had all reached home. What happened to her daughter, a desperate mother wondered.
The girl was safe and sound, though at the wrong place. Unknown to her parents and to the driver, she had fallen asleep and slumped in her seat. She was not visible to the driver.
After dropping other kids at their homes, the driver must have taken a look in the mirror, found the van empty and took the bus to his home in Federal B Area. Luckily, a cleaner entered the bus and found the child asleep.
Suppose the cleaner had never entered the bus, or suppose the bus had been locked for the weekend. Could one guess what would have happened to the little girl --- and the family?
On another occasion, the van dropped her and drove off, without realising that the child couldn’t enter her home because her hand didn’t reach the bell, while she stood in the deserted street in May heat. Luckily, a neighbour saw and helped her.
The death of 14 children in their school van in Mungowal near Gujrat on Saturday is too horrible to visualise. But, besides the usual condolences and the arrests that followed, the tragedy should prompt lawmakers and education authorities countrywide to inject a bit of care and tenderness in the way our kids are herded in school vans and picked and dropped without some elderly hand helping them. The most criminal aspect of the pick-and-drop system is that there is no chaperon; it is the driver --- invariably uneducated and uncouth --- who is in charge of the kids’ destiny.
It is rare that he will wait and see a student disappear into his or her home before driving off. In most cases, children themselves get in or jump off without any assistance.
I am not an educationist, nor a lawmaker, but I have some ideas which I expect them to note while making a new and comprehensive law whose principal aim should be the safety of school students. Whether the provincial governments should make this law or it is Islamabad that should prompt the federating units is a technical issue that should not be allowed to torpedo this idea.
One, school vans should be standardised in every respect, including colour. In the US, we can spot a school van from miles. Everywhere they have yellow colour with black stripes.
Two, through a media campaign, the public should be told to show regard for school vans and let children board or disembark in peace.
Three, it should be a criminal offence to have the kids onboard without a chaperon. Every school must have a chaperon with a roster. It would be her or his responsibility to help the students get in and get out.
The chaperon must have a roster with students’ names, addresses and phone numbers.
Four, the van will not drive off, until the chaperon sees the kid enter his home safely. The chaperon should tick mark every name on both occasions, and finally hand over the roster to the school management. The roster should mention the time a kid was picked up and dropped.
Five, the van should have no petrol, CNG or any inflammable material in the bus.
Six, Suzuki vans must be banned as school vans; instead, there must be standard-size buses, whose fitness must be regularly verified.
Seven, the law must make it the school management’s responsibility to ensure the students’ safe journey both ways, except in cases where parents have made their own arrangements.
The Mungowal school tragedy is one aspect of the callousness and disregard of human life characteristic of South Asia. While society cannot change overnight, we can at least make a dent in these attitudes where possible.