Volume 3 Issue 16 - August 15, 2005

Make one colony totally accessible as a beginning to make Delhi a model of access: P.R. Mehta

"Urban Planners and Managers must recognise that public spaces are not just for workers, meaning the production force. They should adopt the concept of citizenship as an all-embracing category of all people who live and move in these spaces. It is this outlook that will guide them in creating structures that are not restrictive but truly universal,” says P.R. Mehta, Former President, Council of Architecture and an avid supporter of a barrier-free world, in conversation with Parvinder Singh.

Picture of P.R. Mehta

1. What is the concept of Universal Design? What is its scope and dimension?

When we use the term Universal Design, we mean design for all ages, gender, physical state, etc. Basically, we imply that the design must cater to the needs and concerns of all. This obviously means it must be usable by all -- both so-called non-disabled and disabled – from age four to eighty.

2. How would you assess India’s awareness to the issue? Are architects in India aware and equipped to handle the issue?

See, there is awareness. It’s new, but it’s there. So far as Indian architects are concerned, they are quite equipped as professionals. They are trained to create structures that they are delegated to. If the individuals, planners and policy makers ask the architects to address needs of access, they are capable of addressing it. The important point here is what is asked from them. If they are told that old people, children or disabled people are going to use the facility and it needs to address that, there is no reason why an architect cannot do it.

3. What kind of involvement or role do you expect from the Government and its agencies in promoting access?

Let us look at it this way; there is awareness at very domestic or individual level that the house one lives in has to address the needs of family members ranging from a newborn to grandparents. So there is a natural appreciation at a subconscious level of what each member needs in a family. I am highlighting it is because this may appear subtle, but unfortunately people forget this vital understanding when they play the role urban managers and planners. Those entrusted with the task of planning public spaces should recognise that what they see in a family must be reflected while making public policies. They must recognise that spaces are not just designed for workers, meaning the production force. They should recognise the concept of citizenship as an all-embracing category, consisting people of all ages and all hues. This outlook will guide them in following designs that are not restrictive but truly universal.

4. If you were to list out in order of priority, as a Delhiite, what are the steps that need to be taken to make the national capital accessible to all?

I will reiterate that the issue of access is about public spaces, which constitutes 60 per cent of urban space, and for this the urban managers and decision makers have to acquire a new perspective to ensure that any structures or services that they create must be usable by all. When I say all structures I literally mean all -- Roads, footpaths, telephone booths, electronic signals on the road crossings, signages, etc. The single most important issue that needs to be done is to follow the idea of access in decision-making and implementation. In terms of what areas that should be targeted, I would say any public area that gets lot of people and is visible.

5. What are the challenges entail operationalisation of this concept in Delhi?

The urban planners and authority concerned have to promise themselves that if they spend even one rupee it needs to incorporate the basics of access. For instance, footpaths in the city are laid over and over again each year. All they have to do is add guide blocks, keep the gradient in mind to suit accessibility. Insensitivity is also a major problem that will need to be addressed, but the need for greater commitment on part of the planners is of paramount importance.

6. On 15th August, NCPEDP is launching a National Campaign for a Barrier-Free India? There is a plan to urge Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit to make the national capital a model for rest of the States in terms of access, any observations on this?

As of now, it appears that the Urban Planners and Managers have closed their eyes and decision-making is in the hands of insensitive people. Therefore, sensitisation is the key for bringing in a change in the perception and actions. The Campaign is a big step, and especially the demand to make Delhi a barrier-free model. Other States hold up whatever happens in Delhi as an example. Hopefully they will see big changes in terms of access and emulate it. One has to make a beginning. Even in the National Capital, it could be a colony or a residential area that is selected and made 100 per cent accessible in a time-bound manner. Then move on from there.

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