For disabled people Delhi Metro was a promising beginning. For the first time in this nation's history, they were not forgotten in planning and construction of an important public utility. It raised a million hopes, but this may already be coming to an end, says Parvinder Singh based on the results of an access audit of Delhi Metro's Phase II by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P).
Imagine a symbol of national pride being projected on an institution that is intended to become the harbinger of a new and modern India. Now place in this imagination a whole section of people quarantined to a small space, segregated in a corner that is labelled 'charity' or ‘tokenism’!
This is the unfortunate exercise that India's most modern mass transport system, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (D.M.R.C.), is engaging in with its latest policy of marginalising disabled people/commuters and their constitutional right to access.
This may come as a great surprise to many. The Metro team and their mentor E. Sreedharan have so far enjoyed an unprecedented media and public appreciation for pro-people and an honest approach. The disability sector itself has been a great believer in the vision of the Managing Director and had showered kudos when the very first phase of Metro was unveiled.
For disabled people it was a promising beginning. As for the first time in this nation's history, they were not forgotten in planning and construction of an important public utility. This raised a million hopes, not just from Metro but also from other major cities that plan to adopt the metro-model for future transport system.
But the dream run may already be coming to an end and with it, perhaps, the hallmark of accountability that distinguished D.M.RC. from all major infrastructure institutions that this country has seen so far.
"As a matter of policy, considering the number of physically challenged commuters likely to use Metro, only one entry at each station has been designated for such commuters to facilitate them to travel by Metro. Provisions have therefore, been made to meet the specific requirements of all kind of disabilities at this entry only."
These are the words of D.M.R.C. Chief Architect Tripta Khurana written to National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P) in response to an access audit of the second phase of Metro construction that found that major compromises have been made by not addressing accessibility standards for disabled and mobility impaired commuters.
As if the audit itself wasn't enough to shock – which we will refer on to in due course --, the response from the Metro is nothing short of a catastrophe for the disability sector. The key words in the above quote are "all kinds of disabilities" and "number of commuters" and only "one entry". There goes the dream for inclusion and 100% accessible Metro.
Let's trace back the sequence of events leading to the articulation of this medievalist position of "disabled commuters on one side please".
N.C.P.E.D.P over two months back conducted an audit of the yellow line segment that runs from Central Secretariat to Delhi University. The move was prompted by feedback from some disabled commuters stating that the agenda of access seems to have been brushed under the carpet.
The audit of the Central Secretariat station revealed that except for the entrance at the Rail Bhawan or Parliament side, all other entrances are inaccessible and need a person to climb at least 70 steps to get to the Concourse level. A wheelchair user will have to cover a long distance from the parking in front of Vijay Chowk/South Block entrance, through a very narrow and inaccessible side-walk, to the reach up to the lift.
The ramp, which provides access to the lift, is on the main road that serves as an unofficial parking for railway officials. Since it lies directly in the path of the entrance to the building, it is extremely dangerous. The access features, the guiding blocks and low set ticket counters, are restricted only at one section of the station.
In fact, a wheelchair is effectively barred from going to other sections except down to the platform. The gates are kept locked. There is no audio announcement of departure schedule at the station. The entire scripting on information boards is without Braille signages. The guiding blocks have not been laid as per standards.
The Survey's findings were placed before the D.M.R.C. Managing Director, E Sreedharan, and a fervent appeal was made to him to come clean on the issue and address these inadequacies as they would create decades of inaccessibility if they went unaddressed.
In the letter dated 3 February 2006, Executive Director of N.C.P.E.D.P. Javed Abidi wrote: "In Phase II, much to our dismay we came to know from several quarters that compromises are being made and that not all the places, specially the entrances and exits, are barrier-free!"
N.C.P.E.D.P. then decided to do an enquiry of its own and during the course of this week- on 30 January and 2 February to be specific – it conducted an extensive audit of the so called Yellow Line. Abidi wrote that it was shocking that at several entrances/exits, there is no provision of lift and, instead, stairs and escalators are being constructed/installed.
The above, stated to reply to this survey, should have served as a call to the Metro to not slip up on the good work. It has, rather, revealed that Metro has decided to take defence behind feeble excuses like "what's the need?"
"It is ironical that N.C.P.E.D.P. had given the Helen Keller Award to D.M.R.C. after the first phase for creating the country's first disabled-friendly transport system and now the same institution is taking short cuts and heavily compromising on rights and needs of disabled people," laments Aqeel Qureshi, Senior Project Coordinator with N.C.P.E.D.P. Access Unit, who was involved in the Survey.
If one was to whip up the issue of resource crunch then the question of why only disabled people have to be marginalised at every given opportunity must be tackled first.
"The clause of providing access within the economic capacity, mandated in the Disability Act, is being used as an excuse to not implement the provision in its true spirit. Though we need a change in this clause to give it more teeth, but the point is why the needs of disabled people should be placed below that of any other section of society," asks Advocate Anuroopa Giliyal.
Programme Manager with ActionAid India, Victor John Cordeiro says: "We must keep reiterating that there should not be segregation in the services of Metro and I am all for a 100 percent accessible Delhi Metro."
When the findings of the audit and consequent response, by Metro were brought to the notice of Deputy Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities T. D. Dhariyal, he said: "The Office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities feels that if it is not a matter of technical impossibility all entrances at the said metro station should be accessible. I have not seen the facility yet, but the fact is that access is for all and allows not just disabled commuters but also pregnant women and elderly to use the facility independently."
Javed Abidi has decided to take the debate with Metro to their very doorsteps and has challenged the Chief Architect D.M.R.C. to test any of her colleagues by placing him or her on a wheelchair and asking them to navigate to the only accessible entry on the Rail Bhawan side from any of the other four entrances.
He says the one entry scheme of things is nothing short of blatant tokenism and will become a fatal habit for a glorious institution. It would lead to decades of discrimination of disabled people.
Samarthya, National Centre for Promotion of Barrier-Free Environment for Disabled Persons, an organisation advocating barrier-free environment, was also contacted by D.N.I.S. to seek the organisations view on the so-called policy of the Metro of having just one entrance for disabled people. A questionnaire was sent to Anjali and Sanjeev Sachdeva, who run the organisation, asking if they plan to take up this lapse. No response was received till the filing of this feature.