NEW DELHI — On the day Japneet Singh died, his father dressed him neatly in his crisp school uniform for picture day at his nursery school. At school, Japneet, 4, smiled shyly for the camera. But he never made it home.
That afternoon, when Japneet’s grandfather arrived to pick him up at the bus stop, he found him lying on the roadside in a pool of blood. Japneet’s schoolbooks were scattered on the ground, and his brother, Parmeet, was kneeling beside Japneet’s crumpled body, shaking him.
“Get up, Cherry!” Parmeet implored, calling his brother by his nickname. “Get up!”
Such scenes have become all too familiar in India, which leads the world in total traffic fatalities. A startling number of the victims are schoolchildren.
Horrific school bus accidents occur with alarming regularity. At least 14 students died and 21 were injured in March when a school bus plunged into a canal in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In July, one student died and 52 were injured when their bus fell into a gorge in the city of Srinagar, Kashmir. And often the accidents are like the one that killed Japneet — he exited the bus and was crushed beneath its wheels.
Experts attribute the accidents to a deadly combination of bad roads, chaotic traffic, poorly enforced safeguards, badly trained bus drivers and a lack of political will to address the problem. Safety analysts also say that the Indian public has failed to demand safer services.
“There is no public anger,” said Harman S. Sidhu, president of ArriveSafe, a nonprofit group focused on improving road safety in India. “It’s accepted as part of India’s road crashes.”
In any Indian city or village, schoolchildren can be seen hunched under heavy backpacks in matching uniforms, dodging traffic as they walk to or from school or a bus stop. India’s school enrollment has exploded as the country’s economy has taken off, with elementary schools alone adding about 34 million children in the past eight years. But the number of vehicles tearing through India’s roads has increased even more sharply, doubling to 74 million vehicles in the same period. More than 14 million were added last year alone.
This combination of more students and more cars has resulted in far more accidents. No statistics are available on school bus accidents or deaths, but overall traffic fatalities have markedly risen during the past decade. Nearly 134,000 Indians were killed in traffic accidents in 2010, the most recent year for which government figures are available.
For many children, the journey to school is often filled with hazards. Roads are poorly planned and rarely maintained. Only half are paved. Drivers often lack much formal training and recklessly navigate through choked city streets. Crosswalks, road signs and even sidewalks may be missing.
Fifteen years ago, India enacted its first laws regulating school bus safety, after a Supreme Court judgment demanded, among other guidelines, that buses have doors that can open and close, a mechanical device to limit the vehicle’s speed, a qualified conductor and an experienced, law-abiding driver.
“Now it’s a question of enforcement,” said Mahesh Chander Mehta, the lawyer who filed the case, noting that existing regulations are often ignored. “The laws are there. But all over the country awareness is lacking.”
Ameeta Mulla Wattal, vice chairman of the National Progressive School Conference, a coalition of 130 schools, said the lack of enforcement was compounded by a lack of punishment after an accident occurs.
“I’m sure there are hundreds and thousands of schools that don’t follow it,” Wattal said of the guidelines.
She said that more stringent rules were needed to address matters like the overcrowding of school buses, which are currently allowed to be stuffed to one and a half times their capacity.
Bus operators do this to save money, Wattal said.
“This should be contested,” she said. “It is ridiculous.”
Safety analysts emphasize the need for government action but argue that the onus is also on schools, which need to take safety more seriously. Many schools collect transportation fees from students and then contract with a private bus operator to provide the services.
“If there’s a crash, the school management passes on the responsibility to the bus driver and operator,” Sidhu said. “They pass the buck.”
This year, officials in the western state of Maharashtra introduced measures to address a spate of bus accidents. The new proposals called for tougher rules for the licensing of operators, the replacement of older buses and stricter enforcement to ensure the installation of devices that limit speed. In response, an association of school bus owners, complaining of higher costs and calling the measures impractical, staged a strike.
Moreover, school buses are only part of the scrambled student transportation network. In the New Delhi metropolitan area alone, several thousand students cram into vans, euphemistically referred to as school “cabs.” Others across India are ferried in auto-rickshaws, a popular three-wheel vehicle in the country that has no doors, with children often spilling from the sides.
Arvinder Singh, the father of the boy killed by his school bus, said he had thought the school bus was a safer option than the vans and auto-rickshaws. Yet, school and government officials were callous and apathetic, he said, when he looked to hold someone accountable after Japneet’s death.
“I handed over my child to them,” Singh said on the first anniversary of his son’s death last month. “It’s basically a trust we give to the school that they’ll keep our children safe.”
The school bus driver was arrested, and the case is now in court. Singh said that the school had offered him about $5,400 but that he had refused the money, saying he wanted justice.
“I have lost my child,” said Singh, who plans to start a nonprofit group committed to child safety. “I know he won’t come back to us. But I don’t want other parents to suffer like I have.”