If the upcoming school exams weren’t stressful enough, parents now have one more thing to worry about: the possibility of private school buses going on strike from April 1 during exam time. The final decision on the strike will be made on March 28, but if it does happen, it will be an all-India movement.
Anil Garg, President, School Bus Owner’s Association (SBOA) Maharashtra claimed, “We are getting calls from bus owners from all over the country, urging for a mass strike. We want to go on strike to create public awareness, because this isn’t only our problem. It is everybody’s problem. There are 9,000 private school buses in the city. The future of school buses is very bad.”
There was a High Court order stating that you are an essential service and cannot go on strike.
We are not an official essential service. We are serving the public, but we are private businessmen. And it is not as if we are getting any benefits of being an essential service. Doctors, teachers and railway officials are essential services, even they have gone on strike. We would have done this earlier too, but we always think of the children and then we do not go on strike.
If you go on strike, how would the children manage?
What can I say? The government has to bother about that.
Why this sudden decision to go on strike?
Firstly, insurance companies have increased the premium for third party insurance. This is a type of insurance where if an accident takes place, the insurance company will pay the passengers, not us. We don’t get anything. They have done this across all vehicles so even parents who own cars or bikes have to pay more now. Parents too should protest. Secondly, diesel prices have been increased by R15 per litre in the last year and by R2 more from yesterday. Thirdly, the government has also hiked the tax we have to pay per seat from R100 to R1,900. All these come into force from April 1. These additional rules are an attack on the individual, not just school bus owners.
To recover these costs, you will have to hike the school bus fee?
Obviously. We’ll have to hike it by 67 per cent. We can hike the fee and continue to run services but then how will we create public awareness? The public will have to pay the increased fee. We are businessmen, we are not sitting here to do charity. We have been fighting for the past two years. If we hadn’t fought, we would have had to increase our fee to R2,500 per month by now. Current fee varies from school to school, but on an average, it is R800 per month.
Has any government official approached you to discuss your plans for a strike?
No one has called. They will wake up only on April 1.
When the school or the parents hire a bus, who is responsible for the safety of the children in the bus?
The school is a mediator between the bus owner and the parents. If the bus owner runs away somewhere, some liability falls on the school, since they have appointed him. Otherwise the bus owner is responsible. But when buses are hired by parents, nobody will take responsibility.
When schools purchase buses and give them to you for operating, who is responsible for the children’s safety?
School is responsible because they have chosen the contractor, and the contractor is appointing the drivers and cleaners. That’s why they don’t want to purchase the bus.
A recent survey by Regional Transport Offices (RTO) in Mumbai revealed that fewer than 60 per cent buses owned by private operators were safe. There were no safety grilles or firefighting equipment. It also found around 95 per cent of school owned buses are safe.
Safety grilles are not required. Rods are required. The RTO officers don’t know what they are talking about. They are working in the interest of manufacturers. Whatever they are asking us to fit - speed governors, cameras, safety grilles - it is only in the interest of the manufacturers. Speed governors all over India cost between R3,000 and R4,000 each. Only in Maharashtra it costs Rs 12,000 to Rs15,000. Why? The Central Government has given time till 2014 to install them, with a maximum speed of 80 km per hour. The state government wants it now and that too with a maximum speed of 40 km per hour. Even then we will install everything they want us to install. But who will suffer in the end? Parents.
They will have to bear the extra cost...
Chai mein jitni shakkar dalenge, utni meethi banegi.(The tea will be as sweet as the amount of sugar you mix in it.) The private schools’ own buses? Our contractors run those buses.
What about firefighting equipment in the buses?
They are already installed in all the buses. The government has given a wrong statement about this. In an aeroplane with 194 seats, there are only six cylinders of 2 kgs capacity each. Here, when seating capacity is around 20, they want cylinders of 5 kg capacity each. A cylinder of 5 kg capacity weighs around 8.5 kg. I challenge you even you can’t pick up a cylinder that heavy. How are you going to spray that in the bus?
Do you have drivers and attendants who are trained in using the equipment?
We give them training all the time.
What about checking the driver?
We know their backgrounds completely. But you can’t check their character because that can change after 10 years. We are not astrologers or face readers to know that after five years, he is going to do this nonsense (molest or rape children on the bus).
What about lady attendants?
According to the Supreme Court, the school has to supply the lady attendant. We tell the schools to supply, they tell us to supply. Later, they complain, ‘This lady is too dark (in complexion), change her’, or ‘This one doesn’t know ABCD’. If she knew ABCD and was a graduate, why will she work here? The Education Department has sent a circular that the lady attendant should speak English, Hindi, Marathi and she should have passed her Std XII exams. Do you think anybody will send their daughter to work with drivers and cleaners? It is better that they will work in the malls where they get R10,000-15,000 salary per month. Here, small kids say, ‘Oh you are so dark, don’t touch me’. It is an insult.
Now school buses have to be painted yellow, right?
No. There are three kinds of buses: the first is only school bus, which has to be yellow in colour; the second is school and company bus which can be in any colour and you have to only put a yellow strip; the third are buses with a Bombay region permit, these buses can go anywhere in Mumbai and can be in any colour.
When buses are parked outside schools during pick up and drop times, they cause congestion on the roads which makes it difficult for normal traffic...
It doesn’t happen because of school buses; it happens because illegal school vans (small private vehicles) are many. These vehicles are all parked outside schools. They are allowed by the government, if they follow certain conditions: they have to paint the vehicle yellow, which they are doing; maximum number of children they can take is nine but they take even 16; they carry children above 12 years old which they are not allowed to do; any driver of a public transport vehicle has to have a badge issued by the RTO and an experience of five years, but young 16-17 year olds are driving these vehicles and that too without the khaki uniform, which is the official dress code. This happens under the nose of traffic officers. Even parents who hire these vans are not aware they are illegal.
What are your plans for the next academic year?
Stop the buses. We are not interested. If the government wants to play this game, we know our own game to play. They cannot run even BEST buses properly. Have you noticed BEST buses only have paper stickers mentioning the destination now? And they are asking us to put the name of the school on the bus!
Raj Aloni Principal, Ramsheth Thakur Public School, Kharghar
We have our own school buses and we operate them ourselves. The school peons are in charge of cleaning the bus and one of our lady teachers travels in the bus. We also appoint the drivers directly so they are on our payroll. This way, we have hold over the functioning. We can’t rely on private contractors. Their cleaners are very bad and they don’t pay the conductors well. We run the buses as a service so that students will come to school, not for profit. Our buses are new and we charge only between R500 and R700 per month. Private contractors charge more. If a parent is not at the stop to pick up a child, private contractors simply drop the child on the road. We don’t do that. You can tell an outside contractor repeatedly, but they won’t spend money on safety or refill the fire extinguishers in the bus on time.
Jayant Jain President, Forum for Fairness in Education
It is mandatory for all schools to have a transport committee, consisting of the school principal, the bus contractor, a member of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and an RTO official. Bus operators hike the fee with the consent of management, they don’t consult the PTA. They simply inform the PTA, there are no meetings organised to debate the issue. Whenever rules have been implemented, they increase the fee. They increased it last July, then again in August- September, then again in the last couple of months, in the name of safety. Before they start the academic year, they’ll increase it again. Schools appoint those bus owners who give the most cut to the school management. The High Court has ordered that the buses cannot go on strike, if they do so, it will be contempt of court. The court had recommended they be listed as an Essential Service, but it hasn’t been done so yet. If they go on strike, there will be chaos. Children come from remote areas where there are no autos or taxis. Many children from Borivli and Dadar attend schools in Santacruz. How will they reach school? Why are they victimising children?