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The shocking acquittal of all eight accused in the Zion Matriculation School bus case, in which seven-year-old Sruthi slipped through a hole in the floor of the bus and was killed in 2012, has shown up the lack of integrity in the prosecution, which could not even prove that there was a hole on the vehicle’s floorboard that led to the tragedy.
Besides a staggering 35 prosecution witnesses turning hostile, the judge of the Additional District Court in Chennai also found lacunae in the government’s evidence, including such technicalities as the electronic evidence not having been certified as required under the Evidence Act. The accused were tried for culpable homicide.
As a case that shocked the conscience of the State and even beyond, the child’s violent death prompted the Madras High Court to suo motu ask the Tamil Nadu government to issue new rules for school buses and their operation, including constitution of school-level committees that would monitor safety.
The botched prosecution will undoubtedly result in the case being taken to higher legal forums on appeal, and the courts may see the need to fix responsibility for the ghastly tragedy and render justice to the child’s family.
Besides a staggering 35 prosecution witnesses turning hostile, the judge of the Additional District Court in Chennai also found lacunae in the government’s evidence, including such technicalities as the electronic evidence not having been certified as required under the Evidence Act. The accused were tried for culpable homicide
In the decade since the child’s death, the case took some sharp turns, including the child’s mother M K Priya alleging that she was receiving threats from the school’s founder, N Vijayan, a charge he denied. The police initiated an inquiry into the threat allegation, but it is unclear how the investigation concluded. In 2016, the Consumer Disputes forum ordered payment of Rs 10 lakh as compensation to the child’s family, against the Rs 25 lakh that they had sought.
One key aspect of the case was the ownership of the vehicle. The school chose to distance itself from the state of the vehicle that it was using to transport children, and blamed a private person who reportedly owned it but had used forged papers to register it in the name of the school.
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When the High Court took cognisance of the case, it ordered departmental action against the Regional Transport Officer and Motor Vehicle Inspector concerned, warning that it should not be a mere “eyewash”.
Focus on school bus rules
The Sruthi case and the Tamil Nadu Motor Vehicles (Regulation and Control of School Buses) Special Rules 2012, that followed the court’s direction call into question the state of road safety, particularly when it involves transporting children to school and back.
Chief Minister M K Stalin had issued special instructions at the recent first meeting of Chennai transport regulator CUMTA to prioritise the safety of children during the school commute, among its objectives.
In the 10 years since Sruthi’s death, not many lessons have been learned on school trip safety, as school transport vehicles are frequently found to be in violation of the 2012 rules.
The school chose to distance itself from the state of the vehicle that it was using to transport children, and blamed a private person who reportedly owned it but had used forged papers to register it in the name of the school
One of the major provisions violated is the use of non-standard vans for school transport. The rules are vague on the technical specifications and even the meagre provisions stipulated are not adhered to. School bus technical specifications are governed by All India Standards of the Automotive Research Association of India. Not all vehicles used to transport children are buses; small vans that do not meet any standards are also deployed. Leased buses are permitted by the rules, but they must get a special and specific permit to transport students.
Many do not have safety features, and do not conform to the rule that the first step on the footboard should not be above 300 mm from the ground. Many school transport vehicles are used for other purposes too, which is prohibited. The vehicles are not fully painted yellow as well, violating another provision.
At a systemic level, Tamil Nadu rules require every school to constitute a school transport committee, with its members being the local Police Sub-Inspector, Education Department official, Motor Vehicle Inspector, and Parent-Teacher Association representative, and this panel should meet every month. The violation of various such provisions, and data from the National Crime Records Bureau which show that school and college zones in Tamil Nadu have a high accident rate (9.4% of road traffic accident deaths) clearly indicate that low priority has been given to safety so far. Chief Minister Stalin’s mandate follows this finding.
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The Tamil Nadu rules regarding specifications about school buses need amplification, as the definitions are vague on technical standards, and make no mention of blind spots for the driver. Several children have died because drivers cannot see them crossing in front of the bus from where they sit and have driven forward unknowingly. This can be averted by stipulating that all buses and vans used for any purpose must have a proximity mirror in front of the driver.
Under the special rules, school buses must be inspected for fitness every three months. Amended rules could specify a prominent display of the date of fitness check on the sides, front and rear of the bus, to enable community monitoring.
Sruthi’s tragedy should have led to a stronger response to the school safety crisis in Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu. That it has not is reflected in the slipshod or even compromised prosecution in the case, and the business-as-usual approach to road safety.
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