Activists says solutions should be holistic, piecemeal announcements like making 500 railway stations disabled-friendly will not help much.
Despite over 21 million people in the country suffering from one form of disability or another – and the government’s plans to make at least 50% of government buildings and at least 25% of the transportation facility disabled friendly as part of the Accessible India Campaign – the Union Budget presented by finance minister Arun Jaitley had little to offer to persons with disabilities. The only major announcement was the plan to make 500 railway stations disabled friendly by installing lifts and escalators. However, this has not enthused disability rights activists as they argue that similar announcements made in the past have not resulted in the creation of a barrier-free environment.
RTI activist Satendra Singh, an associate professor of physiology at the University College of Medical Science and GTB Hospital in Delhi, who has conducted an access audit of Delhi’s railway stations said the announcement is not cause for joy. He said, “Two years ago I had written to the railways that there is no lift or elevator for passengers at New Delhi Railway Station, it only has escalators on the Paharganj side and persons with disability have to be carried in a dangerous manner on them. But till now no action has taken place.”
“In Delhi, the railway officials talk about installing escalators, but they are not modes of egress for PwDs (persons with disabilities). They need lifts or elevators. The only elevator at Paharganj side of New Delhi station is not used by PwDs but by Railway officials for it does not connect to the overhead bridge. Moreover, you also need lifts at all platforms to help PwDs move,” said Singh, adding that he himself uses crutches when he goes to the station because he has to use the stairs as he feels the escalators are unsafe.
Singh said this is the situation despite the New Delhi and Anand Vihar stations being Category A stations – implying that they were meant to be completely accessible. “In such a situation, what can one say about the condition of the lower category stations,” he said.
Problems with trains and platform height too
“Railway minister Suresh Prabhu had earlier announced that all the coupe would be provided with Braille signages but we find that persons with visual impairment find it hard to locate these signages and often these are very dirty. Moreover, funds should have first been utilised to remodel the platforms so that the gap between them and the trains was reduced. Efforts should also have been made to raise their height so that it would become easier for all passengers to board and alight,” said Singh.
The rights activist said the gap between the platforms and the trains posed a grave threat to the lives and limbs of persons with disabilities, especially those with visual impairments and orthopaedic disorders.
Not enough money for the Accessibility India Campaign
Singh said the Accessibility India campaign’s budget was not increased last year and the situation is the same this year. Singh added that the campaign originally promised that Delhi’s stations would be completely barrier free and disabled friendly by early 2016, but that hasn’t happened even a year later. Clearly, the campaign has not adhered to the planned timeline.
Little sensitivity at stations
Recalling an accessibility audit done by him, Singh said he had found facilities missing at the stations. At some of the stations, he said golf carts had been provided to carry persons with disabilities, but it was revealed that few were in operation and could only be accessed if the person who required them happened to know a railway official personally. “The only option is to engage a coolie who will take you through the railway tracks at the end of the platforms. But they carry people through the tracks and that exposes them to risk of getting hit by a train.”
Singh also lamented that coaches meant for persons with disabilities are often placed at the end of the train, and they are usually occupied by central police forces’ personnel or people known to the ticket checker.
The director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in India and the founder of the Disability Rights Group, Javed Abidi, said, what India actually needs are proper building codes and transportation policies that work in tandem to make the country accessible for everyone. “Making 500 railways stations barrier free would obviously make a good impact, but what about buses and public buildings and issues of overall accessibility,” he said.
Also raising the issue of the Accessibility India campaign, he said, the initiative hardly has any funds and accomplishing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a “Sugamya Bharat” will require much greater input from the Centre. “As of now, the announcement is just a blip because accessibility is not a very significant objective for the planners still.”
Faulty planning to blame for all ills
Addressing the question of why India has failed to create accessible or barrier-free environments when developed countries factor these requirements while designing spaces, Abidi said: “The answer should come from the government or the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD). The country is not taking disability with the seriousness it deserves. Even now disability has been left by and large to the social welfare ministry and they do a little bit here or there and make a lot of song and dance about it and that is it. But what about the allocations under the head to the nearly 15 other ministries like MoUD or rural affairs ministry which deal with the issue at different levels.”
He said the guidelines are also faulty. “Even till today we have not been able to rectify the national building code, which is a job of the MoUD. All the construction, building bye-laws and municipality work arise out of this.”
As a consequence, he said: “Even in future planning nothing is happening. We are still continuing with building structures which are not disabled friendly. Either there is no mention of disability or a cursory mention to it. We must talk about accessibility for all, and not only persons with disabilities”.
Questioning how awareness about the need for barrier-free spaces can spread to Tier II and Tier III cities, Abidi pointed out the need for specific guidelines to ensure that all these components merge. He also called for efforts to sensitise junior engineers, architects as well as engineering and architecture students and architecture to institutionalise awareness.
“These general guidelines are not being worked upon. The point is that all these building bye-laws and building codes come under the Ministry of Urban Development but if you would speak to officials there they would not know ‘D’ of disability. The problem lies there” he averred.
Why was the Budget not accompanied by a sign language telecast?
Abidi also said that when the country speaks about disability, the solutions should be holistic. “A few years ago at the fag end of the UPA government we had fought for providing sign language along with the Republic Day commentary and later we expanded the mandate and got it extended to Independence Day speech.”
“Some time ago we also demanded that the president’s address be also provided in sign language. But even today when the Budget was presented, it was not in sign language. Is it essential that demands should be made repeatedly. Such things should be institutionalised.”
This being the situation, Abidi said unless all the relevant ministries work in tandem and with sensitivity and prior planning – by having a disability unit and relevant people on their staff – it will be difficult to find solutions to the problem. “This country should also acquire knowledge in the field of disability and access. When you can call consultants for other issues, why not disability?” he asked.