Private operators protest transport department crackdown, call off strike after talks with officials
Traffic jams and harried parents scurrying across the road, their wards in tow, were witnessed in school zones across the city on Tuesday. Also, many students reported late for class in the morning, teachers said.
When a large section of private van drivers went on a strike on Tuesday, it threw the precariously-balanced timetables of Chennai’s moms and dads, off the track.
According to van drivers, the strike was in response to “harassment from the transport department”. While they initially planned to stay off the roads for three days, drivers decided to call off the strike on Tuesday evening after a meeting with transport department officials.
Following the recent death of six-year-old Sruthi, a student of Zion Matriculation Higher Secondary School, in an accident involving her school bus, the transport department began a crackdown on vehicles transporting school students. Private vans too came under the scanner.
“We recognise the importance of road safety while transporting school students, but the checks became too stressful for us. Traffic policemen would stop our vans and book cases arbitrarily even if we adhered to the rules and had our vehicle documents in place,” said K. Raghupathy, state organiser of Federation for Private School Van Owners’ Welfare Association.
The Federation, on Tuesday, presented a set of demands to the transport commissioner. These include relaxation of adherence to seating capacity norms.
“Maxi-cabs are designed with a seating capacity for 12+1, keeping adults in mind. We have asked the department to allow us to carry at least 20 students so that the service is commercially viable for us,” he said.
His rationale: where 13 adults can sit, 24 children can. Also, private vehicles pay more tax than regular school vehicles, he said.
A senior official of the transport department said, “We need to go through their demands carefully. It is a question of safety.” He said the department was monitoring all types of vehicles, and not just vans, involved in transportation of school students. The vehicles, he said, were often caught for overcrowding.
The Federation has over 7,000 vehicles plying in different parts of the city. Some schools that do not own an adequate number of buses or vans to transport their students often engage private operators.
R. Rachel, a teacher at a school in Anna Nagar, said private vans filled the gap created by inadequate public transport in interior parts of the city.
“I take a private van every day, along with my school-going child. We pay Rs. 1,600 for two-way transportation. It is quite convenient as the van picks us up right outside our home,” she said.
Parents have little choice as crowded MTC buses are not really an alternative. “The school charges so much, but does not provide transportation to its students. When both parents work, we have to resort to private vans,” said the mother of a student going to a CBSE school in Adyar.
Though issues of safety cropped up from time to time, she would prefer her child to travel in a private van than crowded MTC buses, the parent said.
However, it is utter chaos if the van does not turn up. “Many children were late to school today. There was a major traffic jam near Thirumgalam,” Ms. Rachel said.
The scene was no different in Santhome, Gopalapuram or Adyar, where several private vans operate. Parents were seen dropping off their wards on two-wheelers and cars, thus crowding entry points to various schools.