The Daulatpur-Nawabshah road accident on Jan 15 has left the whole nation grieved. The accident resulted in the death of 18 school children and three teachers while many others remain in critical condition. Heart wrenching scenes were witnessed outside hospitals and at the residences of the victims. But this was not an isolated incident. Accidents involving school transport are an ongoing issue hitherto unaddressed.

The Kalar Kahar school bus accident in 2011 that left over 30 school children dead and last year’s Gujrat school van inferno in which 17 children lost their lives are just a couple of recent examples. The fitness and road worthiness of school transport is a nationwide predicament. The urban regions of Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and other cities present a gloomy picture. Early morning or mid-afternoon images of uniform-clad school children stuffed like caged animals in ancient, rickety, noisy and overloaded vans or pickups can be most tormenting to the eye.

These over-packed vehicles can be commonly spotted snailing along on various town and city streets. Areas where schools have mushroomed without any planning or foresight become completely clogged during the mornings and afternoons. And the operation and performance of school bus services is anything but satisfactory. Be it routine commuting or going on excursion trips, young ones are haunted by the same predicament.

Transport contractors are the leading stakeholders in this entire affair. They exist in different scales, ranks and profiles. Due to the long distances traveled between schools and pupils’ residences, the transporters have to juggle around with route organisation to make their service efficient. As a norm, children who reside faraway from their school have to suffer intensely. They are picked up early in the morning and dropped last.

Fuel prices have risen exponentially during the past few years. As it was consumed for public transportation of various kinds, diesel prices were not affected during the previous regimes. But at present there is no relief.

In many cases the whole service becomes loss-oriented as the bus fee is not raised before academic sessions. However, most transporters were found to use compressed natural gas (CNG) cylinders with leaking connections. While the use of non-certified CNG cylinders in vehicles is officially prohibited, there is no proper check on this and it becomes critically hazardous for children who are forced to inhale the gas without respite.

Due to lack of any kind of safety installation such cylinders are also prone to explosions and fire. Then the poor condition of our roads adversely affect shock absorbers and seating in vehicles. The result is that children are completely exhausted after these tiresome journeys.

Fleecing is routine. According to school van operators, the system of coercion has now become a meticulously organised enterprise. In case of arguments from the driver, the traffic police slaps him with very high penalties. Since these drivers have to meet the school timings, they usually avoid debates and attempt to settle the matter amicably.

Under contractual arrangements where the school management hires bus contractors, the transporters’ ordeal can be severe. The management fleeces the parents by charging them high fees but seldom shares any portion of that money with the transporters. In some cases, the management also charges registration fee from the transporters on a unit vehicle basis. At times, these vehicles are found emitting tons of black exhaust due to rundown engines and the use of poor quality lubricants.

Maintenance and repair is done only on a fire fighting basis. School buses, with few exceptions, are very old. Due to the unavailability of access to credit from formal banking channels, the transporters cannot obtain funds to replenish their fleet. This, too, leads to poor quality of services.

School owners, especially private school operators, are key players in this situation. However, they happen to be unconcerned about the problems of school transporters. Still, a few schools did take the initiative of pre-qualifying transport contractors and assessing the quality of their fleets but the number of such instances was limited. The common argument was that since the schools had no commercial interest in this whole enterprise they did not bother to exercise control on the routine working of school transport systems.

Traffic police officials, sounding articulate, throw the entire blame on transporters. They accuse them on several counts. Under-qualified drivers lacking basic skills and driving license, declining road-worthiness tests for their vehicles, overloading, and incomplete documents and over speeding were a few common observations cited by traffic police personnel. Some of these shortcomings are also the usual causes for accidents.

Several steps are required on an urgent basis in order to improve the scenario. School enrolments have to be encouraged according to localities/neighbourhoods. If uniform quality education is provided along all the spread out localities, the tendency to send children to far away places would decline. This change can only occur through incentives as no law or guideline can force people to seek admission in nearby schools. Private-sector school operators can be encouraged through incentives and subsidies to open quality learning institutions in lower-middle and middle-income areas.

The school transport sector must be regulated after a fair assessment of its problems. School transporters should be provided access to formal credit for up-scaling and improving their fleet of vans or buses. Some kind of assistance may also be extended to rationalise their operational costs.

A monitoring mechanism is vital and must be instituted in order to check the performance of transporters. A joint monitoring body of all stakeholders may be constituted with the police department playing the role of facilitator. The latest components in information technology may be used to undertake this task. Vehicle monitoring devices, which are common place in tracking the movement of automobiles, could also be installed in school buses to observe their movement.

The writer is professor and chairman, Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, Karachi.

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