The Madras High Court has ordered that all buses to be procured by the State government for public transport must conform to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, the statutory rules framed under it in 2017 and the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Environment for Persons with Disabilities of 2016 issued by the Centre.
First Division Bench of Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice N. Mala disposed of a public interest litigation petition filed by cross-disability rights activist Vaishnavi Jayakumar in 2021 with a direction to the government to also follow the orders passed by the Supreme Court on the issue on December 15, 2017 in Rajive Raturi versus Union of India.
The Bench accepted the submission of Advocate General R. Shunmugasundaram that the provisions of the 2016 Act and the 2017 rules would not apply to buses that were procured before the law came into force and recorded his assertion that the government had no intention to flout either the 2016 law, the statutory rules or the harmonised guidelines.
Ms. Jayakumar had filed the PIL petition challenging a Government Order issued on February 24, 2021 to purchase only 10% of low floor buses. She argued that there could not be any tokenism when it comes to universal accessibility and that all government buses must be made differently abled friendly since every physically challenged person had a right to accessibility.
In a counter affidavit filed before the court, Transport Secretary K. Gopal said all government buses could not be made low floor buses at a stretch due to poor road conditions and the possibility of rainwater getting into the buses. He said that 37% of the new buses to be allotted to Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) in Chennai would be low floor buses.
According to the Secretary, the government had decided to purchase new buses for transport corporations across the State with financial assistance from a German bank. The procurement would be undertaken in five spells and it had been decided to purchase 2,213 buses in the first two spells and MTC would be allocated 642 of them.
Of the 642 buses to be allocated to MTC, 242 (37%) would be low floor buses. Further, it had been decided to purchase 500 electric buses of which 100 low floor electric buses would be allocated to MTC. He also said that a technical committee had identified the routes where most number of physically challenged people travel in buses.
The committee comprised officials from the MTC, the Greater Chennai Corporation, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, Director of Municipal Administration, Director for the Welfare of the Differently Abled and the Director General of Highways. It took note of a survey finding regarding requirement of low floor buses in specific routes.
As per the survey, 55 low floor buses would be required in Tiruvottiyur, Tondiarpet and Royapuram localities where around 5,000 physically challenged persons use the public transport. Similarly, 31 buses were required in Sholinganallur, Adyar and Perungudi route, 28 in Kodambakkam, Valasaravakkam route and 32 in Ambattur, Anna Nagar route.
Further, it was found that 30 buses would be required in Manali, Madhavaram route and 22 in Teynampet, Alandur route. During the technical committee meet, the MTC had placed a request to modify 956 bus stops in Chennai city to make them accessible to the differently abled passengers and the committee also discussed feasibility of conceptual bus stop options.
Also highlighting the huge cost difference between regular buses and the low floor buses, the Transport Secretary told the court that an ordinary diesel bus costs around ₹22 lakh whereas a low floor diesel bus costs around ₹90 lakh. He pointed out that the cost of a low floor electric bus was approximately ₹1.5 crore.
After perusing his affidavit and hearing the arguments advanced by the petitioner’s counsel as well the A-G, the judges said their interference would be sufficient to the extent of ordering that the buses should comply with the 2016 law, the rules framed thereunder, the harmonised guidelines and the Supreme Court orders.