Mumbai/Bangalore: Around this time last year, the staff at JB Ludhani High School in Vasai received a chic package from Tata Motors Ltd. A box opened to reveal a golden oyster and the company’s advertisement likening its buses to the mollusk, describing them as “the perfect shell for your little pearls”.
Tata followed up with calls and visits from its marketing team. Their efforts paid off as the school soon placed an order, choosing Tata over two other manufacturers.
As schools across India wind down their academic year, auto makers are gearing up to cash in on a bright spot in the commercial vehicles market. Since the first horse-drawn school bus was introduced in 1827 for a Quaker school in London, school buses across the world have come a long way. But perhaps few markets have seen as rapid an evolution as India in recent years.
Pathways World School in Gurgaon has air conditioned buses with pneumatic doors and reclining seats for its students
Until recently, transport was considered an extraneous matter by most schools across the country, a task to be outsourced to vendors without much attention paid to the quality of buses. Today, most schools are keen on having their own transportation and see acquiring a school bus as a critical investment decision.
In response, manufacturers of buses are plugging bells and whistles on buses from air conditioning, special doors, reclining seats, fire retardant materials, even global positioning systems (GPS). In turn, the booming education sector is seeing schools boast about their modern buses, alongside plugs for international curricula and stellar teachers.
The demand for school buses has also grown due to newer regulations that schools must have their own buses if they reach a certain size, according to Ravindra Pisharody, vice- president for sales and marketing in the commercial vehicles business unit of Tata Motors. More aware and demanding parents, the growing number of schools and a consciousness in ensuring safe transportation for children has also contributed to the growth of the school bus market, he says.
The auto industry pegs total sales at around 12,000 school buses per year valued at about Rs1,000 crore; a single bus costs anywhere between Rs5 lakh and Rs18 lakh. While the number is small, the 15-20% growth in the segment—compared to the 3% growth in the overall commercial vehicles market—indicates the market could double in size in four years. Every year, Tata Motors sends out specially designed mailers to 15,000 decision makers in schools across the country. In the case of the Ludhani school outside Mumbai, an official said Tata Motors trumped other manufacturers by assuring the school its buses were safe.
“The most important parameters that we consider while deciding from who to buy a school bus are safety of the children and the reputation of the manufacturer. The other factor we consider is fuel efficiency,” says the official at JB Ludhani High School, who could not be identified due to school rules on speaking to the media. Selling buses to schools has evolved into stiff competition, leading each manufacturer to try to outdo the other on unique features. Tata Motors’ buses under the name, “The Skool range”, boast ergonomically designed seats, anti-skid floors, door alarms, and padding on seats, handles and windows to reduce the risk of injury. Ironically, schools don’t mandate seat belts in their buses. Some manufacturers though, such as Tata Motors, do provide seat belts on seats near the exits.
Even on the services side, auto firms offer a lot more today than ever before, notes Rakesh Kalra, managing director, Mahindra International Ltd. For example, Mahindra International has created a special team called the Mahindra School Bus Experts. “This team handles marketing and customer relationship for the schools segment,” says Kalra. The team also helps organize training for school bus drivers.
Mahindra International, a joint venture between Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd and International Truck and Engines Corp. of the US, has been focusing on the schools segment for more than five years.
According to Kalra, it is currently a leader in the small school bus segment with a market share of about 35%.
Increasingly, auto manufacturers have found that the demand for extravagant features is increasing—mirroring the sleek and opulent infrastructure also found within the growing private school segment. These days, even the way a child arrives to school makes a statement.
Consider the seemingly endless list of amenities in the buses at the Pathways World School in Gurgaon: air conditioning, pneumatic doors, reclining seats, bright yellow paint. Pathways, which transports 350 students and some faculty on a daily basis, also plans to invest in a vehicle tracking system for its fleet of 26 buses in about a year.
“We have ensured that our transport not only meets all the safety requirements, but goes beyond that to make it more comfortable,” says Capt. Sanjeev Kumar, the estate security and transport officer at the Pathways World School.
Other features of the new buses include fancy and bright colours, better aesthetics—in terms of upholstery and flooring material, and unique front and rear-end designs to help differentiate from other school buses. In Bangalore, particularly, the trend to equip school buses with GPS is picking up rapidly. Ajay Shekar, director (administration) of Indus International School in Bangalore, says his school has installed a central tracking system through which it monitors its fleet of 20 buses. “A teacher on the bus has the mobile numbers of parents and we keep them updated through SMSs,” he explains. The Delhi Public School, Bangalore South, is also running a demonstration of a GPS system on the school buses it hires to ferry students and teachers. “We also look for speed governors and GPS,” says Chitra Sharma, headmistress at the school.
In Mumbai, too, one of the city’s top schools, The Cathedral and John Connon School, was the first to equip its 52 buses with GPS in 2006, enabling school authorities to track them. The school, which transports more than 1,500 students in its buses everyday, also notes other safety features such as railings on windows, closed doors that prevent mishaps during travel and padded bars in front of the seats to minimize injuries.
“Earlier, parents did not see school buses as a viable transportation option for their children because of many reasons. In some cases, the quality of the buses were not good and in other cases, the school bus service was not widely available to all children,” says Indrani Malkani, a parent whose child recently graduated from The Cathedral and John Connon School. Malkani spearheaded a move to ensure wider acceptance of school buses through an initiative called the Model School Bus Service.
“The thrust of this system is to ensure that school buses provide safe, secure and efficient service,” she says. While The Cathedral and John Connon School was the first to implement the service—at the core of which are buses that adhere to all the safety norms as well as are equipped with GPS—other elite Mumbai schools such as Bombay International School and Bombay Scottish School have also implemented the same.
JB Petit, another leading school in the city, is in the process of implementing the service for its students. Malkani says that in the case of Cathedral, the usage of the school bus service went up from 24% to more than 90% once the new service was in place.
At the recently established Singapore International School in Mumbai, the only bus that the school owns is air-conditioned and has other features such as comfortable seats—but is only used by the faculty. “Our student body is not very large and most of the parents prefer to send their children in their own vehicles. As the school grows, we will consider investing in high-end buses,” says a school administrative official. “For the few students who rely on the school, we offer transportation by luxury cars.”