For children en route to school, safety comes last

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Safety seems a far cry for most children traveling to school in cabs and vans as unauthorized private vehicles continue to operate unchecked in the city. Perhaps a handful of vehicles operating legally follow the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court.

The transport department’s statistics say there are 12,203 registered ‘educational institution buses’ which are maintained by various schools in the city. However, these cater to a minority. There are more than 25,000 vehicles, including vans without commercial licenses (whiteboards), ferrying lakhs of children every day. Majority of them operate without permits.

“As per the Supreme Court guidelines, a school bus or a school cab should have safety measures like windows with grills, a fire extinguisher, and a Global Positioning System, among others. The driver must have at least five years of experience in driving a light motor vehicle. Hardly any school follows these rules,” a senior official at the Regional Transport Office (RTO) said.

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Hired vehicles must have commercial licenses and a display that says ‘On School Duty’. Officials said they have virtually no control over the hired vehicles.

Two officials who are part of the RTO’s enforcement team said it is impossible to check the menace, as parents to prefer to send children even though they are well aware that the mode of transport is not safe.

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“About 15 to 20 children are packed into an auto-rickshaw right in front of their eyes. But parents prefer that rather than spending Rs 20,000 to 30,000 per month on charges,” an official said.

Last year, RTO officials organized a drive against illegal vehicles and seized hundreds of Tempo-Travellers and Omni vans. “For whiteboard vehicles, we impose a minimum fine of Rs 9,000 and suspend their operations for 30 days. But none of that has had any effect as the same vehicle will be back in operation within no time,” an inspector said.

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A senior official admitted that enforcement has taken a backseat, but blamed it on the shortage of staff. “Even basic checks on permit violations (by private buses) have not been successful as vehicle owners know we are short of staff. At least 300 people are needed for inspection in Bengaluru,” he said.

The Transport Department had initiated a process to hire 150 personnel to various posts nearly two years ago. However, sources in the department said only 50 positions are likely to be filled.

“It will be five years by the time the next round of recruitment happens, and by then Bengaluru’s vehicle count would have grown from 70 lakh to 1 crore,” the source said.

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