Volume 6 Issue 12 - December 01, 2009

Rural India: Inclusion and Access

Dr. Gaurav Raheja, Assistant Professor of Architecture, IIT Roorkee
Dr. Gaurav Raheja

Dr. Gaurav Raheja is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee. His area of specialisation is access in rural areas. In this piece for D.N.I.S., he takes a look at the problems that people in rural India face and the need to incorporate user friendly indigenous designs to overcome them.

India is the seventh largest country in terms of area and is a melting pot of diversity, be it social, cultural and economic conditions to geographic, climatic and political domains. 70 percent of its population of 100 million is from rural areas. While the urban areas are busy matching pace with the rest of the world, the rural scene still remains neglected in its basic amenities and other infrastructural support.

Impaired mobility, low economic status and lack of infrastructural facilities present multifold challenges for persons with locomotor disabilities to live and perform their routine of daily activities in our rural settings. Local adaptations amidst poverty, coupled with poor rehabilitation services, call for a greater insight into understanding the living patterns of disabled people in rural areas. It is important to address these issues with a broad, holistic and a sustainable approach towards achieving the concept of integrated living.

According to a 2001 report by Jones H., one in five of the worlds poorest are disabled, for whom access to basic rights is a daily struggle. Exclusion from basic services and facilities, such as sanitation and safe water, can result in reduced opportunities, isolation, poor health and poverty. If we think that inclusion is economically not viable for a country like India, we are mistaken.

It is highlighted that the economic costs of excluding disabled and frail elderly people far outweigh the costs of including them. An estimate of GDP lost as a result of disability is between $1.3 and $1.9 trillion (Metts, 2000). The desirable standard of living cannot be achieved unless an inclusive approach is implemented at the grass root level.

A significant population with disabilities in India lives in rural areas. And unless we make inclusive policies with affirmative actions on the ground, it would lead to only further discrimination and exclusion rather than integration. This exclusion of disabled people has further impact on their families and communities, in both human and economic terms.

People with disabilities who are denied educations are then unable to find employment, driving them more deeply into poverty. It is found that it becomes more and more difficult to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and disability. As a result, people with disabilities are amongst the poorest of the poor and their literacy rates are considerably lower than the rest of the population. In 2000, D.F.I.D. reported that as many as 50 percent of disabilities are preventable and directly linked to poverty.

Recent U.N.E.S.C.O. studies have suggested that only 12 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries receive an education. Furthermore, while several basic amenities such as piped water supply, sanitation, toilets and access to mass media are available to urban residents at the household level, in rural areas, these are often available only as community amenities. These facilities have an impact on daily lives of people in rural areas. The extent to which these facilities are accessible and usable by persons with disabilities and elderly people determines their integration into rural community.

The impact of being immobile in a rural setup when compared to an urban situation is much significant. Mobility is essential for almost everything, from self care, sanitation activities, work to play. Without mobility, the barriers to participation in life are immense and each of these barriers may further diminish ones access to a better living.

Surprisingly, despite these socio-economic manifestations of exclusion, most of the efforts for rehabilitation, access or inclusion in rural environments still confine themselves to a medical model or an individualistic approach thereby leaving a large group of people with diverse forms of disabilities unattended.

As a part of my doctoral research on Enabling Environments for Mobility Impaired People in Rural Environments, I could personally witness the lives of 43 respondents with movement based disabilities in rural settlements. This study helped me get a comprehensive idea about the issues that revolve around the lack of access.

I found that communities formed a strong social support for a person with disability amidst weak economic conditions. However, lack of physical access to basic infrastructure facilities like hand pump for bathing etc. made the individual dependent on others for performance of his/her Activities of Daily Living (A.D.L.s).

What are the common forms of barriers in rural India? Open drains, high thresholds at the entrance of a house, lack of toileting infrastructure within homes, uncobbled pathways, absence of street lights etc. for starters. These are things that average non-disabled Indian would not even notice!

Proper sanitation infrastructure is as good as non-existent in most villages. People in such areas have no choice but to defecate in open fields or farmland. A woman in an average Indian village faces great difficulties with such a practice. Now, imagine a woman with disability! Most women with disabilities in such situations are assisted by a care giver and taken to open farmland during the dark!

Most activities in a rural environment were centred on the ground level thereby ground level wheeling devices were considered more appropriate against a wheelchair for non-ambulant disabled people. Only two respondents were found to have a tricycle which was donated by some charitable organization.

While self care activities were somehow supported by care givers or family members, in case of non ambulant disabled, access to education, occupation etc. posed several questions. Not all villages had a school and the ones which had one, were limited to secondary education. As a result access to educational setups was a major issue.

A basic identification for any disabled Indian citizen is the disability certificate. This certificate enables them to avail all benefits provided by the government for disabled people. Most of the respondents did not know how to obtain a disability certificate and what concession benefits they could receive through it. A very small fraction of people admitted to have received an assistive device or calipers as a government aid while most others continued to have hopes of receiving some economic benefit or vocational training for occupations like tailoring etc.

Based on their factual response, qualitative observations and open ended discussions, it was clearly evident that the functioning of Activities of Daily Living (A.D.L.s) in their environments was a result of complex interactions between the personal limitations and environmental factors.

Based on overall understanding through the study and inputs from the mobility impaired respondents, several conceptual design solutions were conceived to improve access to basic infrastructural facilities like toileting facilities, hand pump space for bathing and washing, village primary health centre, village school, Panchayat, etc.

It is further proposed as a research outcome to build prototype model rural environments which may incorporate access at its physical, social and institutional framework. It was realized through the feedback discussions that imported solutions which may be out of context might be expensive and might not be culturally appropriate as well.

The general belief that achieving accessibility requires high level technical expertise in rural settings needs to be challenged. Design solutions work best if achieved through a participatory approach involving the users, their care givers and other members of their social framework.

With, over six decades of independence, its high time to wake up to introduce concepts of accessible environments to the rural India in order to achieve the dream of an inclusive society. Environmental design interventions can go a long way in providing access to one and ALL thereby promoting the concept of universal design at the grass root levels.

India being a signatory to U.N.C.R.P.D. stands at the threshold of its contribution to the Millennium Development Goals of poverty reduction, health and access to safe water and sanitation. Without accessing the needs of disabled people, it would however be difficult to equitably achieve the above stated millennium goals.

But there is hope and as the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi once said, Almost anything you do will be insignificant but it is very important that you do it.

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