Facilities not up to the mark, they say
Arriving at the Adyar bus stop around noon on a sweltering Monday, Rajiv Rajan (38) joined a crowd of waiting passengers. He is unique among MTC's 56 lakh daily passengers. Mr. Rajan has cerebral palsy and his motor functions are heavily restricted.
Being wheelchair-bound, he found it extremely difficult to even reach the bus stop. There was no ramp and the approach was filled with debris, as the bus shelter's surface had disintegrated. “What is the point of having a bus stop if it is difficult to access even for those who can walk?” he asks.
The plan was to board one of MTC's newly launched disabled-friendly buses, which operates along route A1 (Thiruvanmiyur – Chennai Central). The wait began around 12.10 p.m. One bus was expected to arrive at the stop within the next 10 minutes. Mr.Rajan was hopeful.
It was his public interest litigation filed before the Madras High Court in 2005 that set the ball rolling on the need to provide access to public transit for persons with disability. The Court ruled in 2006 that MTC must operate at least 10 disabled-friendly buses to start with. But only two such buses would ply on the city's roads for the next five years.
“My PIL did not change much. Public transport is still very inaccessible for the disabled,” says Mr. Rajan. The Court also asked MTC to consider low-floor buses for the needs of the disabled. Though MTC has rolled out over 1,300 new buses since the 2006 ruling, none of them have any specific features to improve access for the differently-abled.
As the bus did not arrive on time, Mr.Rajan started reminiscing about his recent trip to Seoul in South Korea. “Public transit and public places were so accessible there. You can go anywhere you want without support. So it is not something that can't be done. It is a question of attitude.”
He says that there is no convergence of thought within and between government departments when it comes to issues relating to the rights of the disabled. Mr.Rajan says that bus conductors have still not been trained to not demand ‘luggage charges' from a wheelchair-bound person. “It happened as recently as two days ago. My wheelchair is like my leg. It is demeaning to buy an extra ticket for what, for me, is like a body part,” he says. By 1 p.m., the disabled-friendly bus still remained elusive. In the meantime, six regular A1 buses had come and gone. “The frequency of the service is once every two hours and even that is not reliable. How can I take it to catch a train or go somewhere on time?” asks Mr.Rajan with a smile.
When the bus finally arrived at 1.20 p.m., it took a full three minutes for him to board the bus though he had a person to help. But he got down immediately, finding the lift-like mechanism unsafe. “I can easily rollback. There is no handrail or adequate space for the wheelchair's foot rest.” He says that unless a person with disability boards the bus at the terminus, where there will be enough time and adequate room inside the vehicle, the buses are pretty much unusable.
Thus, he never got to use the bus that was specially meant for people like him. For the estimated one lakh disabled persons in the city, he says there is still room for hope. “Things can and will change. We have the required technology. But it has to start with a shift in mindset – that the disabled also deserve a dignified way of travelling.”