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Sensitisation is the need of the hour: Mehta

P.R. Mehta is the President of Council of Architecture (COA), a regulatory body for Indian architecture, incorporated under The Architects Act, 1972.

His has been the mind behind the blueprint design for making Delhi a barrier-free model city, which is in the process of being implemented by State Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit.

During an interview with Sudeshna Banerjee, Mehta explained how sensitisation is necessary to create a universal design in India.

He also spoke about COA's plans of mooting an access unit to disseminate information on universal architecture and experiences worldwide. According to Mehta the cell should help people in gaining information on sourcing of equipment and design options with promoters and designers interested in creating a barrier-free design.

Picture of a wheelchair user unable to access a letter box

Q: The Disability Act 1995, implemented in 1996, calls for barrier-free architecture in public places. However, when we look at our public buildings, little has been done to make them barrier-free. How do you perceive the situation?

There are many issues involved in this. Whether any Act is there or not, what is important is that people who design and promote architecture need to be sensitive to the needs of disabled people. They should also be sensitive to the needs of people from a large spectrum -- from a six-year-old child to an elderly person.

We need to cater to all. I think somehow the sensitisation has not reached the level where it should have reached. A promoter must know who is likely to use these public buildings. Users could be unknown but their age group is often known.

If you cater to all age groups then able-bodied people and disabled people are all covered. You have to look at universal design. Unfortunately, while designing public buildings we are looking at people from the age group of 18 to 60. That is where the problem lies. You would find that children are not able to speak and are therefore helped by their parents to go across steps they cannot negotiate. With elderly people, persons accompanying them, sympathise with them.

Rules and regulation could be one aspect of making things work, but what we also need is to sensitise promoters and architects, so that they must cater to all.

In India, we do prepare laws, we test laws when we don't see things happening, but what is required is total sensitisation. There could be penalties too for violating the law, but that does not make things any better.

We need to have certain areas which are very visible and make them barrier-free. For instance, let's say "Sulabh Shauchalay" or mobile public convenience could be targeted for sensitisation.

Overemphasising that something should be done only for the disabled is like making them feel that they can live without doing such favours. They think it is the demand of a particular segment of the society, who in any case is not the end user and are a little in number.

However, if you press for universal design as a requirement for different age groups, things will change for the good. Law will not make them understand the crux of the problem. We must target certain areas and work things out.

Q: Which are these target areas?

Visible public spaces like cinema halls, spaces around cinema halls, multiplexes, and shopping malls. These public spaces are under the jurisdiction of some municipal authority or development authority. Let's compel them to make these places accessible.

If people are not made to understand why we are doing this, they will never bring in changes. My understanding is that we cannot thrust things on anybody. People do not perform when they feel the burden of it. They should not take it only as a duty but as something that will help them understand how they can perform their duties better for the benefit of the prospective users.

Today, for example, we don't see many elderly people coming out of their houses. They will all come out if they feel absolutely secure and if we can create an environment that is well illuminated and accessible. I think we have to sensitise development authorities if we are talking of making public spaces barrier-free, which fall under their domain.

Moreover, we must have targets, like this year we must get three buildings disabled-friendly. Development authorities can best do this, as they have annual budgets for repair maintenance of whatever ground they have. Their ground is intensely used and hence, whatever budget they have for railway stations, they have to use it again next year.

Q: Do you mean to say that there should be a committee comprising members from all these civic bodies and from the disability sector to decide on these changes?

Yes, I genuinely feel the need for such a committee and that it should be a people's group and not just disabled people's group. Unless organisations like National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) network with others the message is not getting conveyed.

Moreover, I believe 90 per cent of the city is already built. You only add 2 per cent every time. To make things accessible, one needs to go back and look at the existing architecture and how best that could be made accessible. There are some cities where even this percentage is not added. Here we all are talking about the future, we have law for the future without realising that city is present and not a future.

A city is a living thing. It is not an event of one day, where you say the law will apply from a particular event onwards. We have to deal with accessibility of the existing city. Future is secured if my existing situation is fine, otherwise there is no future. Future means only a promise.

I have very high hopes from the blueprint on 'Accessible Delhi', we have created in collaboration with NCPEDP and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Delhi Government should pursue it. At least I have put in my efforts or whatever little I could do with a clear vision that I am doing it for a purpose and they should carry it through. It is not an academic exercise as far as I am concerned.

Q: You had also introduced barrier-free architecture in the course curriculum for architecture students. Tell us something more on the subject.

Well that was very easy to do. I don't see it as an achievement. You see, COA is a regulatory body that apprises institutions from time to time vis--vis national concerns. So it is not a difficulty for any institution to offer education on barrier-free architecture as part of their curriculum. Even when The Disability Act, 1995 was not there, architectural education dealt with this issue.

Our concerns are quite simple - form, function, comfort and safety - four issues. Function is any particular problem, like you have to design a school for disabled people. That could come as a class problem. If one of the family members for whom you are designing a house is disabled, you have to deal with the situation no matter if there is a law or no law.

Comfort is related to environment. An architect is expected to learn and respond from instances, for no two issues are similar. You deal according to the geo-climatic condition, people and culture. We are not adding anything into the course to replace something.

Priorities may change from time to time, like environmental concerns are vocally expressed now. Instead of looking at things as one of the projects, they may look at the issue from second year to final year.

The beauty of architectural education is that it is contemporary in nature. Schools decide on what is to be given priority - aesthetics of urban planning or barrier-free environment planning or something else.

Q: Is School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) accessible?

It is sad to say that SPA is not accessible. I have studied there myself. It is not barrier-free and I regret that.

At least 33 years ago, when I joined the school I had a classmate who was deaf and dumb. Five years he studied, graduated, performed very well, much better than many of us in terms of architectural practice, worked in a government organisation. However, I still remember the difficulties he faced.

Q: Why hasn't been the school been made accessible so far?

This is the issue where sensitisation matters. People refuse to look at themselves -- what they will become when they grow old; what would be their abilities and what would be their disabilities?

They fail to recognise what they could easily do yesterday they cannot do tomorrow. The way I could run 20 years ago, I cannot run now.

One good thing about SPA was it never refused admission to students with disabilities.
However, these students face many difficulties. We had a disabled classmate who had speech and hearing impairment. If he would miss a lecture or would not understand a lecture, then there was no provision for him to get the material from the lecturers. He would depend upon some of us for the lectures.

Q: If a school of architecture itself is not sensitive about barrier-free architecture, how does one expect other civic bodies to understand this issue?

I agree with you. I was at Lalit Kala Academy, discussing the same issue on a very different context -- who understands life better, which education makes you understand life better.

I said it is art. And architecture is art of art. It involves understanding and sensitisation of all subjects, be it climate, science, art, philosophy. Moreover, architecture is there because humankind is there.

Therefore, sensitisation is the only issue. No amount of law or regulatory mechanism can help. Sometimes we talk of passing an order, as if one serving the other, with a master and a servant relationship. That's how the law is looked at. The law is the master and we are the servants. This does not work in a democratic world. Here we are more dependent on individual soul appreciations. They have to understand why they have to do that. This is a civic responsibility.

Even in a private house we have guest rooms for a guest, who may come only once in many years. So we are imagining the presence of people who are non-existent today and yet we are trying to make some provision for them. Universal architecture is like making provision for everyone.

In places like Singapore it is a law, with clear dos and don'ts. Civic discipline like that could be possible in Singapore, which is a small island nation. India is big country, but we can replicate such laws in small pockets to start with, like in areas falling under the jurisdiction of New Delhi Municipal Corporation.

Unfortunately, most municipal bodies have resolved to make the city barrier-free and they would say they are doing work. But reality is far removed from what is on the papers.

Picture of a wheelchair user encountering a number of stairs

Q: When we have clear guidelines for making accessible environments, what is delaying the process?

Guidelines should not be followed like a textbook. Interpreting guidelines gives you a possibility, not a solution. In a monument, for example, visual access is enough. There is no need to create a ramp or a lift but create a situation, where a person can enjoy the aesthetic beauty. So every situation needs a different approach and people should not misunderstand these guidelines or what they say literally.

Ramps are discussed in all discussions related to barrier-free environment. What about access for people who are visually impaired or hearing impaired? So, it is not a ramp alone that makes the environment barrier-free, but things like graphic signage or audio that make a difference. You have to look at it in a very comprehensive manner and they differ from situation to situation.

Q: Are you looking at any solution from COA?

If we have an access unit or a design cell with COA, it would have a bank of information on experiences around the globe. You must make all the information available at one place and share it with whosoever needs it. It could become an independent initiative also. The Council may not like to deal with it over a period of time, but can support it from outside.

That is where we can contribute in terms of design. This cell can help in sourcing of equipment, design options, and sharing experiences. The idea is that people should be comfortable in designing a barrier-free environment.