|HRD minister Geetashree Oraon checks facilities inside a school bus at Lalpur Chowk in Ranchi on Monday. (Prashant Mitra)
State human resource development (HRD) minister Geetashree Oraon took everyone by surprise at 6am on Monday by personally inspecting school buses at Lalpur Chowk in Ranchi.
A novelty for Ranchi, which sees elected representatives among masses only at poll times, Geetashree, who is also the Sisai MLA of Congress, along with district transport officials and a handful of party workers, examined half-a-dozen school buses, including those of top city institutions.
“Inhuman,” the appalled minister said, when asked to describe what she saw in her hour-long raid.
“Overloading of children has been an issue with school buses for some time. Though district transport officials occasionally conduct inspections, nothing seems to have improved. That’s why I decided to personally take stock of the situation when complaints kept pouring in my office,” Geetashree told The Telegraph.
She did not mince words about the buses she saw of three premier institutions — Bishop Westcott (Boys), St Anthony’s School and St Xavier’s School.
“Bishop Westcott buses were terrible. I personally saw students made to sit like gunny bags on bonnets, on a narrow bench behind the driver’s seat and other places. It isn’t done. I found the situation inhuman,” she said. “Buses of the other two schools (St Anthony’s and St Xavier’s) were also more or less the same,” she said.
Giving schools time till summer vacation to “mend their ways”, Geetashree read out a to-do list to district transport officer (DTO) Rajesh Kumar to monitor if institutions acted on the lines of Supreme Court guidelines on buses to “significantly improve” how children commute.
The Supreme Court has issued stringent guidelines for safety and comfort of children commuting in school buses.
Buses should be painted yellow with the words “School Bus” written on the rear and front, have first-aid boxes, safety grilles, fire extinguishers, emergency telephone numbers, enough space for school bags, attendants and other provisions. But first and foremost, overloading should be avoided.
Geetashree said the school buses she saw violated the rules. “For example, I did not find first-aid boxes anywhere. A driver himself told me he was carrying 98 students, much higher than the vehicle’s capacity,” she said.
Asked about showcause and fines for offenders, Geetashree said she was pragmatic. “Showcause will be served to schools but cash penalties won’t work. Schools find it easier to pay fines (than change buses). We have decided on concrete steps to crack the hard nuts but I will reveal them only once we implement them. We need support from transport, traffic departments and all stakeholders,” she said.
DTO Kumar asked why parents turned a blind eye to blatant safety violations. “If we seize buses, students are stranded; if we turn a blind eye to this mess, their safety is at risk. Either way, students suffer. It’s the job of fee-paying parents to mount pressure on schools who offer the standard excuse that they can’t afford new buses,” he said.
When contacted, D.P. Vij, who handles transport at Bishop Westcott (Boys), said the overloading was due to fewer buses at their disposal now.
“Fifteen of our buses are getting overhauled. On April 28, we wrote to the DTO seeking permission to let us use private buses for now till our own vehicles are back. We are concerned with student safety. Our revamped buses will comply with all the rules,” Vij said.