New Building Code Could Help Make Smart Cities Disabled Friendly

Disability rights groups are urging the Centre to build smart cities that abide by international planning norms and are completely barrier free.

Representational image. Credit: Anjan Chatterjee/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Representational image. Credit: Anjan Chatterjee/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While the Smart Cities Mission had until now been called non-inclusive for largely overlooking providing facilities and provisions for persons with disabilities, the new national building code (NBC) prepared by the Bureau of Indian Standards, which was released by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs on March 15, appears to have now provided a solution to making smart cities disabled-friendly and completely barrier-free.

Disability rights activists are now also calling for the Centre to formulate guidelines or a template for making a few model smart cities with disabled-friendly features, so it can be replicated in all other projects. These developments come at a time when round three of the smart cities project in underway, where a list of cities will be shortlisted for inclusion in the project. Sixty cities have been shortlisted so far following two rounds.

“The question is how do we create awareness among all the 100 chief executive officers of the special purpose vehicles for smart cities,” said Javed Abidi, chairperson of Disabled People’s International

He said his organisation had recently done two seminars to promote awareness, but now expects the Centre to take over. “The Ministry of Urban Development has assured to reach out and they are also talking about model smart cities. So basically the discussion is that four-five cities should be handpicked and then we ensure that what happens there is 100% disabled friendly and then they become role models for the other smart cities.”

Abidi said a set of common designs, guidelines and templates are also being thought of. “There is another discussion on templates. After all there are certain commonalities among all the smart cities like open areas, parks, pedestrian pathways and none of this is rocket science. What we are saying is that a firm directive goes to all the CEOs of the smart cities to just follow the new NBC, which has been recently released on March 15, as far as the built environment is concerned.”

Stating that a lot of work had gone into the preparation of the NBC, he said: “We had worked very hard towards it and it is quite satisfactory. All these people need is a benchmark or a guideline which they can blindly follow while constructing toilets, footpaths, parks etc. So they can just follow the NBC.”

Abidi also said that issues pertaining to apps, websites or any other digital services, including payment of electricity bills, should conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which covers a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible.

Abidi said so far 100 cities have been selected for the Smart Cities Missions and further proposals have been invited. Then 60 proposals were shortlisted – 20 in the first round and 40 thereafter – and money has been sanctioned for them.

But now that interventions have been made by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPDEP), which Abidi has founded, he wants all the suggestions made for making the smart cities barrier free to be taken seriously.

“We want instructions to be sent out to all the CEOs to firmly ensure that vendors comply with the norms. Most of the vendors are international vendors, and include prominent names like Google, Cisco or Accenture, and they have the knowhow and know what is required of them as per the international norms. What happens is often companies cut corners to save money. But now with renewed resurgence and commitment, I am sure that things would move in the right direction,” said Abidi.

However, Abidi wants the hurdles in the direction removed for good. Earlier, he had highlighted the Smart City Mission had neglected digital inclusion for persons with disbailities. In fact, he had also flagged this issue during a conference on the project in Bhubaneswar recently. At the meet, Abidi had also highlighted how several appeals to the government had fallen on deaf ears in the past.

On the issue of making these smart cities accessible, he said, “What we are showing is that 39 cities in the Accessible India Campaign are also there in the Smart Cities list. So the important question we are asking is “if the Accessible India Campaign would be smart, and will the smart cities be accessible?”

With the focus now on “future development,” he said, “What is also of note was if despite the enactment of the Persons With Disabilities Act 1995 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, we are going to forget about people with disabilities.”

The government at large and the ministries of Urban Development and Social Justice and Empowerment will have to ensure that whatever they do has to be fully accessible to citizens with disabilities, he said.

Earlier, the NCPEDP had released a report titled “Smart Cities Mission and Disability,” which had pointed out that the major challenges before the project were lack of awareness regarding e-accessibility for persons with disabilities by the stakeholders; lack of data or guiding policies/principles on persons with disabilities; poor project execution leading to the failure to incorporate features for persons with disabilities; absence of a specific regulating authority to ensure accessibility features in each and every project under the mission; lack of accessibility features in the proposals; and absence of benchmarks for accessibility features like other services.

The report had stated that the Smart Cities Mission had failed to as there was no component of universal accessibility in every proposal. “The mission finds few mention of disability in the overall process, although there is no certainty to ensure their incorporation in each city’s proposal,” it had pointed out.

Noting that “The top 20 winning cities have completely neglected the role of digital inclusion for PwDs in their proposal,” the report had also stated how while several of the city proposals had talked about disabled friendly pathway design or barrier free walkways, almost all of them had neglected the access to IT enabled solutions like e-governance and citizen services.

But of late there appears to have been some progress in inclusion of concerns of the persons with disabilities. Abidi said the report had been sent to secretaries of both the department of disability affairs, as well as the urban development minister and additional secretary in-charge of smart cities. Now, he said, all the discussions are being carried forward by the director of smart cities.