Affordable and Independent Mobility for Persons with Disabilities in India – Challenges & Way Forward (series 2 of 3)
-By Subhash Chandra Vashishth
This article is being presented in 3 series. In the first series of this three-part article on private vehicles for persons with disabilities, you have read about the GST waiver and why it must be extended to all disabilities instead of just orthopaedic, and why two-wheelers should also be included in the GST concession list. This series (2), focuses on the lack of accessible vehicles in India and issues with modified vehicles.
People with disabilities have limited options when it comes to travelling from one place to the other. Though the Government has ensured that Delhi Transport Corporation Buses, Cluster Buses and Delhi Metro Rail systems are accessible in Delhi, however, due to overcrowding, unreliability and wrong docking practices, most people with disabilities find the public transport quite inconvenient and unsafe. Also the last mile connectivity continues to make the journey of people with disabilities difficult in absence of accessible sidewalks and street crossings. There are no accessible ride hailing services nor do the traditional taxis or auto rickshaws provide any succour to people with disabilities in India especially for the wheelchair users baring some exceptions of private initiatives in few cities.
Dependence on modified cars as no accessible models available in Indian Auto Market
There is a conspicuous dearth of disabled-friendly vehicles in Indian automobile market as no car company produces even a single accessible model. People with disabilities, therefore, have been forced to retrofit or modify the available standard car models through local fabricators at their personal cost to meet their specific needs.
The entire exercise of retrofitting and modification of vehicles is time-consuming, frustrating, expensive, unsafe and sometimes against the law as well. These modifications render such vehicles unsafe, often striping them from warranties and insurance services, but people were still trying to manage. However, even this option is in jeopardy after the Supreme Court held any such modification illegal if it is not done by the manufacturer and reflects on the RC of the vehicle.
Dependence on adapted two-wheelers
Two wheelers are very popular for local mobility as these are affordable and also make it easier to manoeuvre in the busy traffic and narrow streets. Many persons with disabilities prefer an adapted two wheeler to enhance their mobility. They typically purchase a two wheeler and spend a substantial additional amount on modification which includes two extra wheels on the rear side for improving the balance, moving the pedal brakes to hands controlled ones and some storage to keep their assistive devices etc. Just like car, no two wheeler manufacturer is producing such an adapted scooter/bike and the only option is to retrofit /modify.
Modification adds to the cost and may not always be safe
Vehicle modification process has become a daunting task due to the following:
(a) Supreme Court of India has banned all vehicle modifications unless done by the auto manufacturers themselves and such a modification should also reflect on the Registration Certificate of the vehicle.
(b) No Auto manufacturer currently either produces accessible models of cars/vehicles or provides a company modified vehicle on demand.
(c) Thus city of Delhi has no accessible Taxis/ Cars for wheelchair users and other mobility impaired people. One of the reason may be that all taxis (commercial vehicles) must run on CNG and once a CNG Cylinder is installed in the taxi, it leaves no space for wheelchair manoeuvring in the vehicle.
(d) Any private modification renders the warranties, insurances of the vehicle invalid and it becomes difficult to claim insurance, in case such a vehicle meets with an accident. This gets complicated when already people with disabilities face subtle discrimination in the insurance sector.
(e) Private modification in vehicles also make the vehicles unsafe and such vehicles are not crash tested. The quality of modification largely depends on the skill of the fabricator and there is no mechanism to verify the same.
Challenges in re-sale of vehicle due to ‘adapted vehicle’ tag
Currently the vehicle purchased by a person with physical disability is registered as an ‘adapted vehicle’ whether there is any adaptation made to make it hand /foot controlled or it is simply an automatic transmission. After 5 years, when the person with disability wants to sell the vehicle to replace it with a newer one, it becomes difficult to sell since the Registration Certificate (RC) has the tag of “adapted vehicle”. No solution has been currently provided for this disadvantage a person with disability faces. The Govt. needs to provide easy mechanisms to update the RC, if the adaptation is removed by the purchaser through an authorised Workshop or car manufacturer to make it easy for resale after five years, where needed.
Time has come for the Government of India to implement Chapter VIII Section 43 of the RPWD Act and take measures to promote development, production and distribution of universally designed consumer products and accessories for general use for persons with disabilities. However, the Govt. can’t take it upon itself to produce all the consumer goods exclusively for people with disabilities. Universal design in product development is the way forward where private players particularly in the automobile industry genuinely take this up – not as a charity but as a business proposition.
A modular kit for hand and foot controls can be a great idea to make all the models accessible on demand for people who self-drive. Modular adaptation kits like right hand controls, left hand controls, only foot controls, mechanisms/ features for deaf drivers etc. need to be considered in the R&D. Similarly, designing wheelchair accessible vehicles of different sizes would be a game changer. These auto products could be launched for individual use, paid taxi/ para-transit or public transport purposes. More innovation may be deployed to make accessories in the vehicle accessible to diverse users. For e.g. accessible entertainment system or air conditioning controls for blind users etc.
Accessible automobile segment has a huge potential. However, it has not been explored by the sector so far. This is an opportune time to bring in synergies of legal mandate, concessions for users; incentives for manufacturers and the business potential of tapping in the new market to meet the needs of diverse segment of users. In the days to come, more people would prefer accessible cars for their families for it meets the diverse needs of family members.
……. continued (in Series 3 of the article, we have focussed on why people have to depend on the import of accessible cars and the exorbitant 100% import duty for persons with disabilities; the Series also recommends making it mandatory for car brands to produce/sell accessible models in India.)
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