Life for persons with disabilities is not easy in any case. It becomes even more difficult when the environment is unsympathetic to their needs. Recent cases of wheelchair-bound para-athlete Suvarna Raj and 100% blind Vaibhav Shukla bring this out very vividly.
If Indian Railways (IR) had made a sincere effort to provide equal access to persons with disability as they are required to do by the 22-year-old Disabilities Act then Suvarna would not have had to sleep on the floor of the compartment and Vaibhav would not have missed his entrance examination at Delhi University.
IR could not provide Suvarna with a lower berth leaving her with no option but to sleep on the floor of the compartment and Vaibhav had to miss his train because no one would open the door of the compartment reserved for persons with disabilities.
Union railway minister Suresh Prabhu has made the customary refrain of ordering an enquiry into the occurrence. But the way IR functions it will in all likelihood limit the enquiry to the sequence of events that led to the incident, leaving the organisational factors and systemic failures that created the incident unrecognised and thus unaddressed.
On the 3rd of December 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan.) This campaign begins with the statement that for persons with disabilities universal accessibility is critical to gain equal opportunity and live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life in an inclusive society.
Targets were set for each sector. But even though the Disabilities Act 1995 and the recently enacted legislation which replaces it mandate that IR should make passenger compartments and stations disabled friendly, the IR targets only focus on railway station accessibility. The key issue of accessibility of passenger coaches on an equal basis, in particular for wheelchair users, was ignored.
With such an attitude it is unlikely anyone will see a disabled friendly, barrier free IR in the foreseeable future unless the railway minister takes it upon himself to bring about a change in the thinking, culture and the manner of everyday decision-making so it keeps the need of persons with disability in view.
Even though IR appears a monolithic organisation, in practice decision-making is spread over numerous departments so the responsibility for building various links of the disability chain is also distributed, which makes creating a barrier free environment the responsibility of everyone and no one in particular.
Further, most of the railway stations and other infrastructure were built in the 19th or early 20th centuries, which makes it difficult to render them disabled friendly without substantial rebuilding, at great cost. To emphasise, moving from one platform to the other is also an issue as is accessibility to the compartments.
These are not problems peculiar to IR. European railways have addressed them by training handlers, constructing ramps to the extent possible and using mechanical devices to lift the wheelchair user into the compartment. Wheelchair users are asked if they would need any assistance when booking a ticket, which is provided by the railway as necessary.
IR also has to find the solutions. I would like to propose a doable solution based on my knowledge of IR as an ex-railwayman and as someone who is also a wheelchair user who travelled extensively by train for performing his duties. The proposed solution has three components. The first component is availability of assistance at embarking and destination stations very similar to what airlines provide.
The second component is that those assigned to assist including the coach attendants are adequately trained in handling wheelchairs and transferring a person with disability into an aisle chair, without injury. They also have to be capable of lifting the person into the compartment and settling him or her into the allotted chair or berth.
The last component is the ability of persons with disability to indicate their needs for assistance at the time of booking and an institutional mechanism that ensures that the asked-for assistance is provided when the passenger reports to the assistance desk.
Once this is put in place it has to be built upon by providing ramps and lifts that will enable persons with disabilities get to other platforms with ease. There is also a need for compartments with wider doors and accessible toilets and chairlifts for getting into compartments. Handlers will still be required but handling will become easier for them and safer for the persons with disabilities.
All this can only come about if the railway minister makes it his personal mission. For example he can make it clear that he will not inaugurate any facility or train that does not cater to the needs of persons with disabilities. For this he will need a disability adviser who acts as his ears and eyes, for assessing different facilities for compliance with disability requirements, before the minister accepts any invitation for inauguration.
The disabilities cell in his office will monitor the various projects for making infrastructure and coaches disabled friendly and for training station staff and coach attendants to handle wheelchairs, and also monitor the associated information systems and the institutional mechanisms for implementing the proposed three component system.