When eight-year-old S.Ananthi left the Red Hills government middle school on Friday evening, she might have thought of meeting her friends as soon as she got home or helping her mother, a basket weaver, in some way. But we would never get to know what was on her mind that day. She was run over by an autorickshaw on her way home.
For many students like Ananthi, commuting in the city is a daily ordeal and one slip could lead to a fatal end. Some fall off overcrowded Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) buses. Others get injured by speeding vehicles while playing on the road. In 2010, 36 children succumbed to road traffic injuries.
Chennai's roads have become so hostile to vulnerable users like children that there is a need for a drastic overhaul in traffic management within school zones and greater sensitivity towards designing child-friendly urban environments, say experts.
Sowmya Simhan of the Suraksha Road Safety Society, an NGO which focuses on the safety of schoolchildren, says that each school must appoint a transport officer to resolve commuting problems. “Parents must also be able to complain to him about overloading of school vans.”
She says that existing provisions on passenger capacity must be stringently enforced. The maximum number of students that autorickshaws are permitted to transport is five and in the case of school vans, it is 18. Ms.Simhan blames parents for their laxity and says even an injury can be a very “traumatic” experience and would stay with the child for the rest of his/her life.
However, parents like Geeta Krishnan say: “Most parents know that their children are travelling in potentially dangerous circumstances, but there is no other go. The school bus is the safest option, but it is not available beyond Class V in the school our child goes to, as the management also cannot provide the service for every child.”
The problem is especially severe for children who completely rely on MTC bus services. Though school students account for 10 per cent of all trips carried by the MTC, most of them suffer inside overcrowded buses. The buses do not halt for them. Even Ananthi waited over two hours for an MTC bus before boarding the autorickshaw which would fatally knock her down.
While there are 28 student specials operated by MTC during the morning and evening school hours, they do not cover most of the northern or western parts of the city.
The government must allow schools to lease MTC buses at low cost to operate more exclusive student services, says N.S. Srinivasan, former Director of the National Transportation Planning and Research Centre. “Such a system started in Delhi in the 1960s; even now nearly 100 buses are diverted to cater to schoolchildren every day. The city also needs to form school safety patrol manned by student volunteers so that they can get involved in efforts to improve their own safety. Besides, speed violations and rash driving in school zones must invite a higher penalty.”
Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Sanjay Arora says that every time a child dies, it is not the fault of the government agencies alone but it shows that society itself is failing. “Child safety is one issue which also throws a light on our general road behaviour. Violations have become the rule, not the exception,” he adds.