Para-Athlete’s Ordeal a Reminder of How Disabled-Unfriendly the Railways Is

At a time when the government is making announcements about upgrading Indian railways, activists wonder why there is no talk of making the coaches more disabled-friendly.

Suvarna Raj. Credit: ANI

New Delhi: In response to para-athlete Suvarna Raj’s allegation that she had to sleep on the floor of a train compartment  after she was denied a lower berth, railways minister Suresh Prabhu tweeted that the government has ordered an enquiry and was “serious about ensuring smooth travel for divyangs“.

“I don’t want any inquiry, I want permanent solution for persons with disabilities,” Suvarna Raj said in response, according to media reports.

Disability rights activists – who, incidentally, also object to the new official terminology ‘divyang’ – insist all such promises by the railways have proved hollow in the past.

They say that what the 34-year-old award-winning athlete Raj had to face is a reflection of the lack of facilities for persons with disabilities on the railways.

According to official data, in 2011, the population of disabled people in India was 2.68 crore, and this number has only grown since. Apart from those officially identified as disabled, there are large numbers of people with some form of disability or physical impairment, who have been excluded in the census.

Only four reserved seats per train

What is worrying is that despite such a large population of persons with disabilities (PwDs), India does not think adequately about them. The fact that the railways reserve just four seats for them in reserved coaches and in a special coach attached at either end of the train, shows how persons with disabilities continue to be at the margins of policy makers’ thought processes.

As disability rights activist and associate professor at the University College of Medical Sciences, Delhi, Satendra Singh, who has been raising the issue of the lack of adequate facilities at railway stations for a long time, said, “There are only four reserved seats for in these special coaches and they get taken up in no time at all after reservations open. The other PwDs are compelled to travel in ordinary coaches which are not designed for their needs.”

Singh, who has filed complaints with the railways about the lack of facilities, said the problem with the ministry was that it did not consult with disabled people on what improvements to make. “Till some time ago, even the reservations for these four seats were not available online and PwDs were expected to physically go and apply for them.”

No ease of access to coaches

He further said that the special coaches attached at the end of the trains were often outside the platform when the trains stop at stations in small towns and villages, and this would make it difficult for anybody to access, let alone a disabled person.

Even with these coaches, he said, the issue of the gap between the train and the platform remains. “No one cares to reduce it by raising and adjusting the level of the platform, as is the case in the Delhi metro.”

Wheelchairs can’t be used in ordinary coaches

As is the case with the ordinary coaches, Singh said, for wheelchair users, the doors and toilet doors are too narrow, and only people on crutches can manage to use them. “Also PwDs are normally accompanied by attendants who exchange their lower seats with them. But when that does not happen, you see the kind of trouble Raj faced.”

Raj had complained about being denied a lower berth by the railways on the Nagpur-Nizamuddin (Delhi) Garib Rath Express, despite repeated requests. shockingly, her fellow passengers did not cooperate and refused to accommodate her as well.

A table tennis player, Raj had recently also contested the Delhi municipal elections as a candidate from the Swaraj India party.

Modern coaches not disabled-friendly either

At a time when the Indian railways is busy making announcements about how it is upgrading its coaches, activists wonder why this has had no bearing on the facilities for PwDs. “When will the day come when PwDs will be able to use all the railway facilities without any barriers?” Singh asked.

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