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Moving beyond the pavement

 Someshwar Sati |  2015-05-17 22:36:10.0  |  New Delhi

Moving beyond the pavement

The Delhi metro with its tactile-plates, wheelchairs, lifts, washrooms and assistance offered to physically challenged commuters and other disabled friendly features may stand at the heart of the city’s claim to be an all-inclusive metropolis, but this claim tends to dissolve amidst regular horrifying accounts of visually or <g data-gr-id="71">mobility impaired</g> people scrambling to board the Metro and often crushed by an insensitive sea of co-passengers.

<g data-gr-id="95">Thirty-year old</g> Smriti, a visually impaired assistant professor in Delhi University, fell onto the metro track and nearly lost her life while commuting to her workplace. “I am lucky that I am still alive, I am also lucky that I live in a city with a disabled friendly public transport system like the metro, but not so lucky that I live in an insensitive society. There was nobody to help me, not even my co-passengers. As for the <g data-gr-id="96">sahayaks</g>, they are conspicuous by their absence,” says Smriti.

Smriti’s story is quite revealing. For public spaces to be truly accessible to those with disabilities, the universal infrastructural designs of these spaces need to be adequately supplemented with a disabled friendly and highly sensitised human environment. Accordingly the central thrust area of the Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan (Accessible India Campaign), the Central government’s ambitious nationwide flagship campaign aimed at achieving a barrier-free environment for persons with disabilities in the next five years is to sensitise the society at large, particularly the government administrators and officials through awareness workshops and planned distribution of educational booklets for spreading awareness on the subject.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment also plans to launch an app that will allow one to upload pictures depicting the status of accessibility of buildings and public spaces. A dedicated portal of the ministry is to be put into service so that grievances related to accessibility can be directly redressed. This Abhiyan will initially cover seven Indian states including Delhi.

Recently a newspaper report on the state of accessibility of Firoz Shah Kotla suggested that the principle sporting arena of the national capital is simply out of bounds for those with disabilities. Over the last <g data-gr-id="77">month</g> the Kotla has been the focus of attention of the general sporting public of the capital as the Indian Premier League Tournament is on. But those with disabilities need to think twice before visiting the stadium. There are no ramps, no disability friendly toilets, no railings and no tactile tiles.

Patterns of exclusion appear to be systematically etched across the built environment of the city making it a no-go area for those with disabilities. The absence of ramps and lifts at the railway station, for example, dehumanises people with mobility impairment. They are either physically carried up foot <g data-gr-id="91">over-bridges</g> or transported through routes assigned for goods. For a person with disability, the experience at other public places (schools, universities, hospitals, courts etc.) is no different, putting in place an architectural apartheid that privileges certain set of citizenry, namely those possessing a ‘normalized’ body form. It is in this context that the Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan acquires great relevance.

India may have enacted its very own Persons with Disabilities Act in 1995 and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (both of which outline the need of “persons with disabilities to have access, on an equal basis with others”), but its national capital remains the locus of social polarisation characterised by dualities and divisions which are increasingly represented in the insensitive design of its built environment.

Non-discrimination in transport, on the road and in the built environment are covered under Sections 44, 45 and 46 of Persons with Disabilities (PwD) Act, 1995. These provisions of the PwD Act mandate all the establishments, appropriate governments and the local authorities to take measures for providing easy accessibility for persons with disabilities in a non-discriminatory manner. The Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan is an attempt to put into practice the above policies.

To Delhi administration’s credit, low-floor buses with access ramps and space for wheelchair users are on the roads of the capital for some time now. The buses, however, seldom dock at the assigned point thus negating the utility of tactile pavers, ramps and handrails at bus stops.

During the past five years, pavements in Delhi have been constructed with tactile tiles to guide visually impaired pedestrians. But the truth of the matter is that these tiles often lead straight into trees, poles, manholes etc. 

“Are these tactile tiles meant to orient or disorient us,” wonders Mithilesh, a second year visually impaired student of Delhi University. “The contractors and engineers in charge of building the pavements seem to feel that these tactile tiles are meant for decorative purposes. The bright yellow of these tiles are used by them to visually jazz up pavements” he adds. The regular sight of decrepit and <g data-gr-id="89">garbage-cluttered</g> ramps, locked-up toilets for the disabled, lifts without mandatory audio signages makes a travesty of Delhi’s claim to be an all-inclusive city and places it within quotation marks.

The built environment of the national <g data-gr-id="81">capital for the most part</g> is insensitive by design. The metro is a rare exception. It is an exemplar that is seldom copied. As scores of awareness workshops are conducted, hundreds of photographs are uploaded onto the Ministry’s portal and thousands of booklets are distributed in future, whether the Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan will be able to achieve its goal of universal accessibility across the country remains a million dollar question. The Abhiyan is nevertheless a necessary step in the right direction.

> Universal accessibility is to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life. This will also ensure their equal access on an equal basis with others, in the physical environment, in transportation, to Information and Communication and all facilities and services open/ provided to the public both in urban and rural areas.

> Accessible India Campaign (AIC) is the nationwide flagship campaign for achieving universal accessibility for all citizens including persons with disabilities.

> The AIC comprises of the following components. 
1. Leadership endorsements 
2. Create Mass Awareness 
3. Capacity Building 
4. Interventions (technology solutions, legal framework, resource generation) 
5. Leverage corporate sector efforts including CSR resources

The author is Associate Professor, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi and is visually impaired

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