The Right to Education has hit the reefs on the road to school. It was a gruesome accident that the children suffered in Kolkata on Monday morning, and ironically enough, in course of the search of learning. That there were no deaths will not lessen the enormity of the tragedy that happened because of the almost institutionalised irregularities indulged in by the school bus operators. Reduced to irrelevance is the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for transportation of schoolchildren.

The bus toppled on its side after smashing into a signal post. The grievous injuries suffered by the children and others were almost entirely the outcome of scant regard for rules on the part of the driver and the operator near the base of the Chitpore Lockgate flyover in the Baghbazar area. Of riveting concern to the authorities must be the fact that the bus lacked what they call a valid “fitness certificate”. According to the Motor Vehicles Act, a vehicle must have a valid fitness certificate issued by the Regional Transport Office.

It beggars belief that so critical a document can be dated, which it was in the case of this bus, thereby rendering the vehicle unfit in law. And in a convoluted exercise to deceive the police and the motor vehicles department, the vehicle was freshly painted blue and white. Worse, the road tax had been pending for more than a month. Not to put too fine a point on it, the vehicle, which normally ferries children to a reputed school in Beadon Street each day, never really deserved to be on the road.

The short point must be that every rule in the book was violated and the bus was carrying children illegally. The vehicle, hired by Holy Child Institute, showcased institutionalised illegalities, for which the school too must accept blame. A routine check on the vehicles is seldom carried out, if at all. The operation of such vehicles runs counter to the certitudes of road rules, as specified by the Supreme Court two decades ago when the judiciary stepped in to address the callous indifference of the authorities.

The apex court had ruled that vehicles carrying school children must be painted in golden yellow and must flaunt the words, “School Bus” , written prominently on all sides. Both the police and the transport department have now admitted that many “unfit buses” ~ some of them more than 15 years old ~ are plying regularly in Kolkata and the peripheral areas. To plead that buses carrying students cannot be stopped for a check during school hours is neither here nor there.

Clearly, the court order has been given the short shrift and the children were on Monday driven quicker to the nearest hospital than to the classroom on the first functional day of the week. Far from acquiring knowledge, the children and their guardians returned home with their hands and foreheads in plaster.