Each traffic incident involving school vans inevitably leads to officials issuing directives anew for monitoring the vehicles' safety measures. Over the years, these directives have hardly been implemented, giving way to fears of more casualties in the future.
This time around, Karachi Commissioner Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui had come to the fore when he directed all school owners on January 16 this year to get the CNG cylinders of the vans, transporting their students, tested from a reputed organisation within 15 days.
"The schools owners will be held responsible and stern action will be taken against them from February 1, 2014, if the vans do not have certified cylinders," Siddiqui's letter had stated. Later, inspection teams were constituted, comprising representatives of the Hydrocarbon Development Institute of Pakistan, Regional Transport Authority, special judicial magistrates and the traffic police to check the vehicles.
Six months on, the progress of the drive is ambiguous at best, as the school vans as well as the newer alternatives - the Qingqi rickshaws - continue to ply unchecked across the city.
School owners’ view
The two major associations of private schools in the city, the All Private Schools Management Association (APSMA) and the Private School Management Association (PSMA), brushed off the government's directives, insisting that the provincial government should treat the school and the van owners as two separate entities. They maintained that almost no member school possessed a transportation system of its own, nor were any members directly linked with the private school vans.
"School administrations are only responsible for the security of children while they are within the boundary walls of their schools," said Syed Khalid Shah, who heads the APSMA which claims the membership of around 6,000 schools.
"The transport facility is a contract between the children's parents and the van owners. We do not have any link with the school van owners and would not mind if the government takes stern action against them," said Shah.
In the public realm, he added, it was the government's job to ensure school children's safety, while law-enforcement agencies must guarantee that directives issued by the government are implemented.
As a result, the drive against unsafe school vans had been restricted to government officials issuing media statements and sending up a few dozen vehicle owners before the magistrates by way of traffic police challans, maintained Sharfuz Zaman, the PSMA chairperson.
"Most of the school van owners do not even pay their motor vehicle tax as they hold traffic police-issued hand-written cards that fix their routes," said Zaman. "These cards, often stripped out of empty cigarette packs, serve as an agreement between the traffic police department and the vehicle owners to ply unchecked for a monthly payment of Rs500 to Rs1,000."
For his part, Sindh traffic police's additional inspector general, Ghulam Qadir Thebo told The Express Tribune that the campaign had run for a couple of months, but had remained passive for reasons he refused to disclose. "We intend to re-launch the drive with full strength as the schools have now reopened after the summer vacations."
Commissioner Siddiqui, however, defended what he termed as 'the positive outcome' of the drive, stating that school van owners were heavily fined and vehicles were even impounded in some cases. "The magnitude of the problem is too big to be handled in such a small time, but the lives of innocent children cannot be put to risk under any pretext," he said. "For significant results, it is necessary that the school associations play their role rather than feigning their concern with a hands-off approach. They should submit complaints against unsafe school vans that park outside the gates of their schools every day."
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2014.