Is Chennai not a city for kids?

Last Updated: Wed, Aug 01, 2012 05:07 hrs

How do we make our city a safer place for our children?

Not from dacoits, kidnappers or thieves, but from bizarre accidents, like the ones that took place within five days of each other? Don't our children deserve to grow up in a society where their safety becomes the first priority? Where are we losing the plot?

On July 25, 6 year old Sruthi, a class II student fell through a hole in the school bus that was ferrying her home. She was caught under the wheels. The hole had reportedly been covered with a piece of cardboard, but it is not clear if a warning was issued to the students on the condition. The bus had been issued a fitness certificate only a fortnight earlier.

Days later, on July 30, 18-months-old Sanjay toddled out of the veranda of his home where his mother had left him -- while she helped her two other children board a school bus -- and crawled under the bus, only to be run over when the bus took off. In both cases, the drivers were unaware that a child was caught under the wheels.

There have been instances in the past as well when school children have been knocked down by their school vans.

In fact, in the case of Sruthi, the Madras High Court took *suo motto* (on its own) action. The First Bench, comprising Chief Justice MY Eqbal and Justice TS Sivagnanam, taking cognisance of media reports, directed the school authorities, as well as transport officials who had certified the bus as fit to ply, to appear in court.

A day after Sruti's fatal accident, P Rajasekaran the motor vehicles inspector who had issued the certificate was arrested and additionally suspended from work. The school correspondent, the bus owner, driver and attendant were all arrested. The First Bench also asked the government to frame guidelines for safety of school buses.

Yet, within days of this directive, toddler Sanjay crawled under the bus, only to be run over by the rear wheel.

"These are very tragic incidents, and many teachers always fear a disaster like this is waiting to happen," says Mohini N, a school teacher in a popular school. "We are all sitting on a powder keg of bad, narrow roads, badly trained drivers, van attendants who are clueless about disaster situations, poorly maintained buses, and a general public with a poor civic sense," she adds.

Recalling the time when over crowded cycle and auto rickshaws ferrying school children raised furore in the city, the
teacher says that nothing much has changed over the years.

Add to that the growing number of school-going children at an younger age, today you would find a play school (for under three year olds) in practically every residential colony. The sheer volume of school children and vehicles out on our roads is mind boggling. In the past there has been a lot of talk on introducing staggered timings for schools, but that is yet to come of age.

Even a simple thing like crossing a road is a hazard, “and unlike foreign countries, where pedestrians have right of way, no adult will stop a vehicle to let a child cross," says R Kapoor, a resident of RA Puram living near a popular school. Teachers say that although this has improved in recent years, with citizen volunteers manning the streets near schools during peak hours  along with traffic constables, the mere process of coming out of the classrooms and boarding a vehicle can be a traumatic
experience for young children. 

Every child is in a rush to get home, and many of them get up when the vehicle is still moving to get near the door—something they have seen adults do, while they are in a transport vehicle.

"We set a bad example. Another factor is that Chennai is yet to learn to acknowledge that our children have a right to safety," says N Ramkumar, a parent. "We have had children falling into pits dug for civic works, or crawling out on to streets  from homes when unattended for a minute; some have fallen out of moving vans, and got crushed under wheels. Parents
worry over grades  and argue with teachers for one mark, but they do not worry if the school toilet is clean or question if the buses are maintained well. Most parents today see schools as the first step to a well paying job. We have reduced education (and thereby childhood) to the state of an assembly line product,"  he feels.

Given that the race to educate our children is unlikely to be scaled back by parents, what can the city do?

“We need a ‘bringing up parents/teachers’ manual,” says H Srinivas, a retired principal. “A lot of time no one cares to talk to our children about anything beyond academics. This has to change. Talk to them about their right to an orderly life. Set an example by queuing up yourself. Ask the right questions of school administration, inspect school buses and vans yourself. Ask an insensitive teacher to have a one on one with a student scoring poor marks instead of shaming her in full view of the class. Encourage open book tests and frame questions where a student has to think,” she says.

The possibilities are endless. Unlike life.

Image: A school bus set on fire by an angry mob after a six-year-old student slipped through a hole on the floor of the bus in Chennai on Wednesday.

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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist