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Ministry advisory on accessible public transport raises more questions

For the first time, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has drafted an advisory for states emphasising the need to make public transport disabled-friendly. Which is welcome but the advisory says this should apply to 25% of vehicles when the RPWD Act says 100%.

As a part of the Accessible India Campaign, comes a first of its kind move from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, which has asked all states to make at least 25% of their bus fleet and private passenger vehicles more accessible for people with disabilities. A ministry official said that this will make it easier for disabled people to travel.

The advisory says:

  • 25% of government owned public transport vehicles and private passenger vehicles to be made fully accessible to disabled people.
  • Immediate steps must be taken to make all bus stops/ terminals/ports accessible.
  • Take steps for retro-fitment of buses including wooden or metallic plank to provide easy access to people with disabilities.

Under the Union government guidelines, there should be adequate number of wheelchairs, visible and marked spaces at all bus stops/ports/terminals, adequate handrails and human assistance and audio-visual info systems for passengers who are visually-impaired as well as hard of hearing. There should also be an emergency button near designated seats.

However, the advisory has raised more questions than answers. Specifically why it has laid down a 25% specification when the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act mandates that 100% of all public transport should be accessible.

Among the first to question this advisory was disability rights advocate and CEO, Nipman Foundation Nipun Malhotra. It was thanks to his persistent efforts that the Supreme Court of India recently passed ruled that the government of Delhi must procure only low floor accessible buses and not standard floor.

Find it weird that the Centre would issue an advisory to states to make 25% public transport accessible when the law categorically mentions 100%. The funny thing is the advisory has no value - courts look at laws, not random advisories. But why have one contradicting your laws at all? - Nipun Malhotra, CEO, Nipman Foundation

States' resist

Over two years after the RPWD Act came in force, many key provisions are still pending and this advisory will make little, if at all, any difference. Most states are yet to even notify the Act and there is resistance when the lapses are brought to their notice.Take for instance the resistance put up by the Aam Aadmi Party-led government in Delhi to procure low floor, wheelchair friendly accessible buses for the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). Even Kerala, which is held up as a benchmark when it comes to accessibility, has done poorly in this regard. The state government faced much criticism over its move to withdraw wheelchair friendly bus services.

Prajith Jaipal, Founder of the NGO Divyang Foundation, says such basic lack of facilities for disabled people is a major barrier for the community.

"It is high time that bus services and all means of public transport become wheelchair friendly. In Kerala, the low floor buses that were wheelchair friendly were closed recently and this is a major problem that needs to be addressed especially now that we regard ourselves as a developed nation".

More than the disability, it is the lack of basic access to transport that truly disabled the community, says Dr Ketna Mehta of the NGO Nina Foundation, which works to empower people with spinal cord injuries.

"It is a pathetic situation that young talented friends with disability have to stay cooped up without the provision of public transport and the physical environment not being disabled-friendly", says Dr Mehta. "Whether it is schools, colleges, workplaces coaching classes or recreational sports activities, nothing is accessible with dignified mobility. This makes people with disabilities dependent on travelling by expensive taxis which burdens them and deters a full life".

It's not enough for buses to be made accessible, say experts. The supporting infrastructure has to be made accessible too. "The footpaths must have a even surface for wheelchairs with kerb cuts and no bollards to travel from home/work place to bus stop", says Dr Mehta. "Each and every bus must have a folding ramp with wide doors for easy access. There should be two fixed slots for wheelchair parking and safety locks for protection from jerks and brakes".

There also needs to be sensitisation done of the bus staff to ensure disabled passengers are supported adequately. In India, where pavement access is marred by shops and other encroachments, there needs to be good civic management as well.

Ensuring seamless travel by public transport requires a change of mindset on many fronts and on the part of multiple agencies. An advisory alone may not be enough and needs to be followed by a larger plan of action.

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