The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment must wield the stick against indifferent State governments and service agencies

You might have noticed that the Government of India's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which now has a separate department for Disability Affairs, announced awards for the disabled on Wednesday, February 6, for last year (2012).

There were awards for individuals, organisations, best employers, role models, research and product development, creation of barrier-free environment, best district (it is South Goa), and so on.

But here is the ground reality: on a visit to the premier bus stand in Asia in Chennai’s Koyambedu, I found the toilet meant for the disabled firmly locked. On an earlier occasion, I noticed that the Park Railway Station in the city has a similar facility and that was also firmly shut, no one obviously accountable for its upkeep.

In a country where the average person finds it a challenge to locate a useable toilet in public space, what is so surprising about point number two, you might ask. That would be a perfectly reasonable question to ask.

Actually, that argument could be extended. When you have buses that the disabled cannot board in that same CMBT bus terminus, of what use is a special toilet? This is a point that needs to be elaborated. In spite of a law that is meant to protect the rights of persons with disability that dates back to 1995, no government takes it seriously. Currently, the country is waiting for a new disability law that could make things a little better.

All this brings us to the question of universal design. This is the principle that when you build structures and services that are friendly to those who have some disability, it serves the general population as well. Equally, when you make things better for the general population, it makes things easier for the disabled too.

Such a message is of course difficult for our political class to grasp, used as it is to more privileges and comforts than the average citizen is. If a particular politician finds it difficult to board an aircraft in the normal course, the vehicle goes to the tarmac and the passage is smooth. Most of our successful politicians have no need to walk on a footpath, so they have scant regard for issues affecting pedestrians. Thus, we live in a country where the average road has no pedestrian facility worth the name, no sane crossing points for walkers at traffic intersections, and a public transport infrastructure that is positively hostile to people with disability (just look at the suburban railway stations in Chennai as an example).

People with disability can neither enter nor alight from railway coaches easily, nor can they have an easy entry into one of our World War II design buses. You cannot even be confident that all aircraft operating in India will offer you an ambulift facility.

So when we return to the question of awards for those who are doing their best to improve access and equity for the disabled, can our government departments even make a claim? Generally not.

I would contend that the outdated model of awarding people for voluntarily working to improve the quality of life of the disabled needs to be replaced with legal requirements that would compel State and local governments to set things right. What we need is a punitive regime for official agencies that fail to provide facilities that a civilised society out to have, more so when it has a disabled population of 21 million (2001) and counting (read this interview). The disability figures for the 2011 census are not yet available, but when they are, they will only strengthen the case for such mandatory provisions.