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February 10, 2019


The burning school van| Photos White Star
The burning school van| Photos White Star

On a foggy January morning, a little high-roof school van went from home to home in Orangi Town, picking up schoolchildren like it did on any other day. It was getting late for school. In a bit of a rush, the van went slightly off road and got one of its tyres stuck in the soft mud. The more the driver tried to accelerate to force the vehicle out, the deeper the wheel got stuck in the ground. The van driver got off the van and went around behind it. Some children also got down, first to make the vehicle lighter but then, when they saw the driver trying to push it, they also placed their little hands on the van to help him and pushed with all their might.

Suddenly the van caught fire.

Some eight children of a total of 14 travelling in the van suffered burns due to the fire. The pictures shared on social media, of small children, aged between seven and 10, receiving medical aid for their burns at a hospital’s emergency caught everyone’s attention.

Are school vans running on CNG or LPG really as dangerous as they say they are?

Initial reports suggested that the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinder fitted in the van had exploded. Later, this claim was dismissed. Investigation into the matter revealed that the fire started due to a short circuit.

Police filed a case against the driver of the van on the complaint of the father of one of the children who was injured in the accident. Despite a city-wide ban on the use of CNG in school vans, it was revealed that the van had two cylinders — an LPG cylinder placed near the driving seat and a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) cylinder at the back. The two cylinders remained intact in the incident. Had they exploded in the fire, it would have been a graver tragedy to bear.

Even though fires in both the vehicle were not caused due to the LPG or CNG cylinder explosions, it is a fact that the cylinders’ placement in the vehicles is not ideal. In the van, the CNG cylinder is usually fitted under the back seat, which is a disaster waiting to happen in case of a collision from behind. 

And moving LPG cylinders in vehicles is anyway a safety risk. The pickup trucks, which carry these cylinders for kitchen use also take certain precautions such as keeping them upright and tightly securing them while using plugs for the prest-o-lite or POL valves to make sure there are no leaks. It is not advisable to move around on our bumpy roads with LPG cylinders fitted near the driver’s seat or anywhere inside a vehicle.   

Extinguishing the flames in the van
Extinguishing the flames in the van

“When I heard about the van bursting into flames with little children still in it, my heart sank,” says Mrs Asha’ar, “I thought school vans were a safe option but now I am hearing all these stories.”

Both her children use a school van. Her husband has a motorcycle but she says “I worry when my son and daughter are riding with him with their heavy school bags.”

“When I heard about the Orangi incident and what people were saying about the cylinders being as dangerous as bombs I thought I won’t let my children travel to school on them anymore,” Mrs Asha’ar adds. “For one week, I tried to drop them off to school myself in a rickshaw but it was difficult to catch one so early in the morning. I tried Uber and Careem but they never reached our place on time and the children got delayed. In that one week, they were only able to make it to school on three days. Two days they missed school due to lack of transport.

“I can’t forget the anguish on my daughter’s face on missing school. She is a good student and had tears in her eyes,” she adds. “ So I am trying to be brave and let them go by school van again. Life and death is in God’s hands. I pray to God Almighty to keep my children safe.”

Some people claim that petrol engines produce sparks while being switched back to petrol from the CNG and LPG cylinders when the latter are empty and that leads to fire in such vehicles. But that theory is a myth.

Fire has destroyed the van
Fire has destroyed the van

All the mechanics, electricians and automotive engineers approached by Eos on the matter said that though LPG is bad for petrol engines it does not produce sparks.

“LPG produces sulphur fumes that corrode the petrol engine’s aluminium pistons, that’s all. There are no additioal sparks flying anywhere,” explains an automotive engineer.

He further says that an empty CNG or LPG cylinder also cannot catch fire from sparks though an empty petrol tank can, even if it has remained empty for days. “Short circuits in motor engines can be caused due to a wiring fault not LPG or CNG,” he adds.

Following the incident, a crackdown was launched against school vans fitted with LNG and CNG cylinders. In turn, van owners and drivers protested as they demanded to be allowed to fit gas cylinders in their vehicles.

“Petrol is too expensive,” says one van driver. “And if it is an off-day for CNG, we can’t even switch to LPG, what do you expect us to do? We still need to drive the children to school.”

Another van owner says that he could get rid of the cylinders and run his van on petrol alone. “But then I will also have to increase the van fee, which parents are always arguing with us about as they are already burdened with very high school fees,” he points out. Meanwhile, in the days that the drivers and owners held protests and strikes, the children missed school.

Confiscated gas cylinders?
Confiscated gas cylinders?

This formed the backdrop to another incident. A school van in Korangi caught fire on January 25. It just burst into flames after a short circuit in its engine. But this van did not run on CNG or LPG. The children in it were saved in time by some policemen who were in a police mobile parked nearby, who threw mud on the vehicle to put out the fire. Except for the driver and one little girl, who received minor burns, all others remained unhurt.

Waseem Jafri of All Karachi School and College Transport Welfare Association tells Eos that they were at a loss as to why everyone was after just school vans. “Since when has CNG in vehicles become dangerous?” he asks. “If it is so harmful [like a ticking] bomb, then why is it allowed in public transport, especially buses in which the number of commuters is far more than there are children in school vans. Why is CNG a bomb in school vans only?” he asks.

“How are the children safer if they were to go to school in their parents’ cars, most of which too run on CNG,” he points out. “Wasn’t it this very CNG that was introduced as an environment-friendly fuel with very few emissions?

“The campaign against school vans is not new. In fact, it started some four years ago when the then DIG Traffic Dr Amir Sheikh ordered all vans to remove their CNG option and be painted yellow. But that would make the school vans stand out, which isn’t very wise, especially after the Army Public School [APS] tragedy,” he says.

Children seated atop the dreaded CNG cylinder| Photo by the writer
Children seated atop the dreaded CNG cylinder| Photo by the writer

“We went to court with all this and also got the revised order that only substandard cylinders were not allowed in vans. The mandatory yellow vans order was also relaxed as we agreed to regular inspections of our vehicles by the Hydrocarbon Development Institute of Pakistan,” he says.

But after the two school van incidents in January, things suddenly took a U-turn. “Media hype was such that even a private vehicle which caught fire was said to be a school van,” he adds. “Until its owner himself came out to prove that his high-roof had never been used as a school van. It was his private car.”

As per the law, school vans are not allowed to run on any kind of gas or to use gas cylinders. After the incidents of vehicles catching fire, the Sindh minister for transport Owais Qadir ordered fitness checks of all school vans. Those found to be unfit were to have their transport permits cancelled. The van owners and drivers denounced this as unfair, while going on strike and protesting. Then the Secretary Transport said that since they didn’t have the manpower to implement the rule of no gas cylinders in school vans, the parents should stop sending their offspring to school in hired transport.

A case was lodged in the Sindh High Court, following which summons were issued to the Chief Secretary Sindh along with the Transport Secretary, Inspector General of Police and AIG Traffic to appear before the court where a two-member bench heard a petition filed by Tariq Mansoor Advocate, Public Interest Litigation Counsel and member Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The petitioner was upset that the Ministry of Transport, Sindh, was asking parents of school-going children not to send the little ones in school vans.

“The Secretary Mass Transit had issued a standard operating procedure [SOP] about all this through a notification back in 2014,” he told Eos. “According to the notification, all contract carriages were to be painted yellow so that no one missed them on the road just like you can tell apart emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks,” he says. They were to have proper route permits, no substandard CNG or LPG cylinders, have a no smoking rule, and be equipped with fire extinguishers. Care was to be taken not to overload them.

“Adding to this, they were to have an extra emergency exit and sliding doors,” says the petitioner. “The school or college whose students they were transporting was to maintain their personnel records.”

Mansoor points out that their grievance is that all these things were not done. And that the school and college administrations said that they were not responsible for the contract vans. “Now even the government is saying that they can’t implement these rules. In doing so the government itself is violating Article 9 and Article 25 (A) of the Constitution of Pakistan.”

Advocate Mansoor agrees that any contract carriage or school van that was not following the SOPs must be penalised. “We have also floated some suggestions and proposals,” he says. “A ‘school bus’ or ‘school cab’ sign on the front and back of every vehicle which picks and drops school children, light blue uniforms for their drivers, first aid kits on every vehicle, the lower step at the bus’s entrance to not be higher than 220mm, horizontal grills for the windows of 35-seater buses for the passengers to slide out through in case of fire.” He adds that he has also proposed speed governors to not let the vehicles exceed the speed of 40km/h.

“Other things that we are asking for is not letting school bags hang outside any vehicle,” he says. “They should also not be allowed to be put on the roof carrier.” He also wants closed circuit TV and GPS systems installed in buses with a capacity of 35 seats or above. The cameras are to prevent child abuse. “They should store 60-day’s data, which can be handed over to the police in case of any complaint. Drivers too should register their data with school managements so that the schools can act as the complainants in case of any untoward incident.

“All these things will contribute to the implementation of Article 9 and Article 25 (A) of the Constitution of Pakistan, which are all about looking after the security of persons and giving children between the ages of five and 16 the right to free and compulsory education.”

The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 10th, 2019