July 31: In a wintry morning in Delhi three years ago, a school bus packed with children going to school, skidded off a bridge. It fell into the cold waters of the river Yamuna below. More than 30 children died. Today, there are plans to develop a memorial in a park for them, very close to the spot where the terrible accident took place.
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has decided to build the memorial. The DDA is the government body in charge of public construction in the city.
Called the “Children’s Memorial”, the park will be spread over 2.5 hectares. It will be developed on the banks of the Yamuna. A beautiful stone pillar from Dholpur will occupy centrestage at the memorial. It will have a granite base, on which will be engraved the names of all the children killed in the accident. A variety of trees will be planted along the boundary of the park, which will always be kept evergreen. Inside there will be swings and lots of space for visitors seeking a spot away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Work on the memorial is expected to start in September.
The children who died in the accident were students of Amir Chand Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, a school run by the Delhi government. On November 18, 1997, more than 120 children boarded their school bus from various destinations in north-east Delhi for school, in Ludlow Castle. Their driver was an impatient man only interested in taking his young charges to school in the shortest possible time. He began over-speeding, unmindful of the fact that it was unsafe.
That day, his luck ran out. The foggy morning had reduced visibility. And while speeding across Wazirabad barrage, which is a sort of artificial dam, the bus began to skid. Slipping sideways on the road, it broke through the barrier of the bridge and plunged straight into the river. The driver drowned, and so did 30 children.
An enquiry into the causes of the accident was held later. It held the bus driver most responsible. But it also blamed the school for allowing its buses to be over-crowded and for hiring ill-trained employees to drive them. Since the school is run by the Delhi government, it was the government which stood accused of failing in its duty completely.
The accident also unleashed an outpouring of public anger at the attitude of the government. It forced the government to review the way it had been running its schools, and pass a few laws on the qualities to look for in hiring school bus drivers.
But, clearly, some of the guilt remains and thus the flurry of activity to build the memorial. “The memorial will not only keep the memory of those children alive but also remind the government of its callousness which snuffed out so many precious lives,” said a DDA official to the ‘The Hindu; newspaper, which carried a report.
But will it? Most Memorial centres are built to keep alive the memories of people who have died sudden and untimely deaths. They are a way of saying sorry to those who died.
They are also a way of reminding people, particularly those responsible, of the pain their act has brought about, so that they do not repeat the act. But governments generally have short memories. Once the memorial is built, the Delhi government, too, might shake off its guilt and get on with the business of forgetting. After all, the memorial is there isn’t it, to show that the government cares? The government can then safely forget about real ways to make road safety a part of our lives. For, the terrible accident has not changed things much. Reports about careless school bus accidents in newspapers every now and then are proof of this fact. It is still necessary to ask, “Who cares for children?”