An Act, but poor implementation

Our public spaces, our transport systems, even our currency, do not take the needs of people with disabilities into consideration

Published - December 03, 2017 12:49 am IST - Mumbai

Suhas Karnik often takes out a ₹500 note instead of ₹20, or the other way around. Either way, the 61-year-old Mulund resident says, it leaves him at the mercy of others. “You are dependent on that autorickshaw or taxi driver, or grocery store owner, to point out the wrong currency you are handing to them.”

The reason he has this problem is that he is visually impaired. And ever since demonetisation and new currency notes, people who share his disability have been struggling to cope. “The width and the length of the ₹20 note and the new ₹500 is almost the same. Same with the new ₹50 and old ₹5, and the new ₹200 and new ₹500. Earlier, the difference between denominations was at least 10mm, and that helped us to identify the currency.” PILs have been filed in Delhi and Bombay High Courts on the issue, he says, and there are “many dialogues” with the RBI, which has given assurances that they will enhance the notes so that they are easily identifiable. “We don’t know when that will happen.”

The blind eye to the needs of the visually impaired with something as ubiquitous as new currency notes is just one example that indicates either ignorance or callousness. Mr Karnik, former honorary secretary of the National Association for the Blind and current centre head of Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, says it’s because disabled persons are not considered a sizeable vote bank.

Good intentions

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (based on the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities), notified in April this year, is progressive and affirmative. But implementation falls short.

Take public transport. The Act calls upon the government to provide facilities for persons with disabilities at bus stops, railway stations and airports, and to conform to the accessibility standards relating to parking spaces, toilets, ticketing counters and machines. It says that access to all modes of transport should conform to design standards, and where economically viable, and without entailing major structural changes in design, old modes of transport should be made safe for persons with disabilities. It also dictates that there should be accessible roads to address mobility needs for persons with disabilities.

Far from meeting these standards, our roads and footpaths are a hazard even for able-bodied people and our transport infrastructure is already overburdened.

Flawed reality

Mumbai: Dec 02: FOLLOW STORY: Neenu Kewlani at Wadala in Mumbai.

Photo: Vijay Bate.

Mumbai: Dec 02: FOLLOW STORY: Neenu Kewlani at Wadala in Mumbai. Photo: Vijay Bate.

For a wheelchair user, public transport is a nightmare.

Neenu Kewlani, for instance, is 47 and has lived with polio since she was nine months old. She has never taken a BEST bus or local train. “As a child, I have vague memories of an outstation journey with parents when I sat in an outstation train,” she says. She could not go anywhere without help. She recalls how she could never attend her science practicals in school as the lab was on the fourth floor. She did a commerce degree through distance education. “I had to be lifted by my father when it came to accessing such places. As I grew up, I started feeling terrible about it.” She last remembers having to be lifted when she was 27; since then, she has given up on going to government offices, restaurants, banks, theatres, even visiting many relatives. “The infrastructure left me helpless more than the disability.”

If one has to travel for work daily, Ms. Kewlani says, taxis are the only option. “It gets expensive. But the government has left no choice for us.” She worked for a few years with the HR department in KPMG’s Lower Parel office which, fortunately, was built to international standards and has wheelchair-accessible ramps and toilets. Now she works with her father, helping run his printing press business.

Malad resident Virali Modi, 26 and a wheelchair user for 11 years, recently petitioned the Maharashtra government to start make train stations disabled-friendly. She reviewed some trains and stations, and found that the coaches for the disabled were cramped and difficult to get into, and other coaches were difficult to enter because of the difference in heights between platform and train floor. Ms Modi acknowledges that it would be difficult to make the city’s local trains and stations accessible, especially given the huge crowd of commuters and the short halts, “So, my focus has been to start with the long-distance trains.” Her activism has borne fruit elsewhere: a railway official in Kerala spotted an earlier petition and contacted her, and now five railway stations in south India — Chennai, Trivandrum, Kochi, Coimbatore and Tiruchi — have been made more accessible, making available portable ramps and wheelchairs that fit into train aisles. “Each of these stations have about two or three such wheelchairs that can pass through any compartment and one can sit comfortably, while one’s personal wheelchair can be folded and kept on the train.” In Mumbai, she did not get a welcoming response from the Railways, hence the petition addressed to the CM.

Some local train stations, like Churchgate and Dadar, have laid tiles with a different texture near the coach for disabled people so that the visually impaired can identify it easily. But the hearing impaired often find themselves lost due to lack of a vibrant visual announcement system. “When a platform for arrival of a train is changed, they make loud announcements and everyone runs from one platform to another. The hearing-impaired person remains clueless waiting at the same place,” says Mr Karnik, adding that the government has to adopt a holistic approach for the disabled.

“Despite the Act, I feel there is zero movement on the ground,” said Ketan Kothari, advocacy manager of Sightsavers India, which works with partners in over 30 countries to eliminate avoidable blindness and advocates for people who are visually impaired or blind. “It will definitely take time to make all public places like gardens or theatres disabled-friendly. Our Prime Minister talks about the disabled in all his Mann Ki Baat speeches. But most of it looks ornamental.”

Smoother travel?

A BEST official, asking not to be named, said the undertaking is struggling for its own survival, so there is little focus on making its buses disabled-friendly. “We had started 30 buses a few years ago in south Mumbai that had low floors, easier for wheelchair users to access. But we had to scrap these buses last year as they were causing a huge pollution control issue. At present, all the focus is on sustaining BEST, which is bleeding financially.”

Central Railway’s chief PRO, Sunil Udasi, told The Hindu, “We have ramps in most big stations. We also have disabled-friendly toilets in stations like CST, Dadar, Kalyan and Thane. For the visually impaired, we have a beeping buzzer near the handicapped compartment so that a person can find them. For the hearing impaired, we already have indicators on platforms and bridges.”

Western Railway’s chief PRO, Ravindra Bhakar, says all 36 railway stations from Churchgate to Dahanu Road have been made disabled-friendly, with ramps, toilets and low booking windows. “Our research and design department is working on the next phase, where we hope to have better visual announcement system and easy wheelchair access to trains.”

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