This year marked 75 years of Indian Independence and five years since the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act became law. Yet, persons with disabilities, like me, are still forced to ask where is our freedom of movement?
The recent IndiGo airlines incident at Ranchi airport may be fresh in the reader’s mind. A child with a disability, based on staff’s misguided assumptions, was not allowed to board the plane despite Civil Aviation Rules and various court orders. Sadly, after the furore related to the incident, matters only took a turn for the worse with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation amending the Rules allowing airline staff and a medical doctor at the airport sweeping powers to decide if a passenger with a disability can fly or not.
This is an example of how in the view of policymakers, accessibility for persons with disabilities has sadly been reduced merely to the thoughtless installation of ramps and lifts. However, for a person with physical disabilities to be able to travel independently, ramps and lifts are not enough. Among the design changes required in public transport infrastructure, for instance, are ticket counters, signage boards and lift emergency buttons at lower heights.
Even in India’s modern metro system, the gap between the train and platform poses a risk to wheelchair users, persons using walking sticks and children too. For this reason, in some countries, the door to the train opens along with a small automatic ramp.
Those of us who advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities have tried to stage interventions in projects related to public transport at the early stages of planning in order to show policymakers how buses or trains can comply with the RPWD and be accessible to all users.
Yet despite exhaustive statutory requirements in force, the pioneering efforts of the Central government’s Accessible India Campaign, and our best efforts, illegal procurement is sadly the norm. Worse, central government schemes like FAME-II are flagrant in their non-compliance. In the first three months of 2022 alone, activists tracked 19 procurements of State Transport Unions and found that over 54% (4,290/7,840 buses) tendered for high floor 900mm buses that fly in the face of norms.
The bulk of these 7,840 buses has been tendered via Convergence Energy Services Limited (CESL), a fully-owned subsidiary of the Ministry of Power. CESL has been approached by the Freedom of Movement Coalition, a network of disability rights groups, time and again regarding the illegality of the planned procurement but in vain. By doing so, the Central government is tacitly endorsing the procurement of public transport vehicles that are inaccessible to persons with disabilities and elderly persons, unethical, inequitable and non-compliant with norms, the RPWD Act and the Supreme Court orders.
Similarly, Indian Railways too have been a disappointment. So-called disabled-friendly coaches are nothing but regular coaches with wider doors. These coaches, actually modified luggage wagons, are actually unreserved compartments that can accommodate only two persons with disabilities and their escorts.
Further, to travel long distances by trains, many persons with disabilities starve for the duration of the trip as trains and stations lack accessible toilets. Even the 100% indigenous Vande Bharat Express reserves only one seat – out of 1,128 – for wheelchair users. Clearly, there is much to be done to make India truly accessible. The first step towards this, however, would be to frame a holistic, disability-inclusive procurement policy.
After all, as the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said, “It is unacceptable to use public funds to create or perpetuate the inequality that inevitably results in inaccessible services and facilities.”
Among the design changes required in public transport built infrastructure are ticket counters, signage boards and lift emergency buttons at lower heights. Even in India’s modern metro system, the gap between the train and platform poses a risk to wheelchair users, persons using walking sticks,
Footnote is a weekly column that discusses the world from Tamil Nadu’s perspective