It is not a chicken coop neither they are farm chickens. Yet every day school children travel to and fro their place of learning stuffed inside rickety vans and hastily converted Suzuki pickups. Some even hang on the doors for lack of space inside these school vans.
While in the civilised world, school buses are given a specific colour – often yellow – to differentiate them from other vehicular traffic, the suggestion has not even been thought of in the education department.
In 1939, Dr Frank Cyr, a professor at Columbia University also known as the “father of the yellow school bus”, convened a conference in Texas to approve the nation’s first school bus standard. At the conference 50 shades of yellow were displayed, and the members finally agreed on a deep chrome colour, according to a report published in The New York Times.
The colour of the bus was based on a 42-page research published in the 1930s by Cyr which talked about everything needed to maintain school bus standards, from the axle to emergency brakes, and to the height and width of the bus.
Before this children went to school on anything, from horse-drawn carriages to cars their parents drove.
No lessons learnt
Pakistan has witnessed two major school bus accidents in recent years.
On May 25, a gas cylinder fitted in a school bus exploded in Gujrat, causing the death of 16 students and a teacher. About seven other students were injured also.
Earlier in 2011, in what became known as the Kallar Kahar tragedy, about 30 students, six teachers and their principal died when a school bus overturned after its brakes failed.
The students were returning from an excursion. It was later reported that the bus with the capacity of 57 was carrying 108 passengers, in clear violation of traffic laws.
Apparently, no lessons have been learnt even after two horrific incidents.
To date, school children are seen stuffed inside buses. Drivers often ignore speed limits as they try to get to school on time in the morning.
“For six months, I went to school in a van with weak brakes. The door also had problems closing and sometimes we would travel with the door open. Often the driver had problems shifting to the second gear; he could only drive in the first gear or the third gear,” said a student who recently completed her A-Levels from the Foundation Public School.
Most schools in the city outsource transport to private contractors. In case anything goes wrong, they refuse to share the blame.
“I could never complain to the school administration about the condition of my bus,” she claimed. “[As] at the time of my admission, the principal told my parents to hire a school bus from outside the school premises. They had nothing to do with school transport.”
Private schools believe that taking care of school transport is an additional responsibility.
“It is not possible for schools to take care of transport too. We can only tell transporters to maintain their vehicles,” said Khalid Shah of the All Private School Management Association.
After the Gujrat incident, the association members were called for a meeting with the Traffic DIG, where it was proposed to give yellow colour to school buses.
“But the idea was rejected,” said Shah. “When the government has never been able to repaint the yellow taxis or the green buses or the yellow Mazda vans, why try to redo a failed experiment?”
No law has ever been drafted for school transport in the province.
“The need for such a law does not exist,” insists Fazlullah Pechuho, the secretary of the Sindh Education Department. He claims the responsibility of checking vehicles on the road, including school buses, lies with the transport department.
“The traffic wardens should check for driving licences, gas cylinder safety, over speeding and stuffing children beyond capacity.”
Dr Muhammad Memon, the director at the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Education Development, explains that a separate law for school transportation is not the norm internationally.
He maintains, however, there is a need to borrow the best practices from the countries in the region. In the UAE, he says for example, the government issues licences to schools which allow school buses to operate, and the parents pay for the transport. An assistant is also present for the younger students to help them sit in the bus.
Memon believes at least some sort of an agreement should be there between private contractors and the school management. “The school administration should keep a check on the transport contractors. [And] in case something goes wrong, the management should also be held accountable.”