Our politicians say Mumbai will be the new Shanghai when comparisons between the city and New York keep cropping up. But Mumbai's dream of becoming a global megapolis is distant and far-fetched. Why? Just ask yourself these questions: when was the last time you saw a disabled person use public transport without help? Can a disabled person use the footpaths in the city? Would he or she be able to go to a public toilet in the city's restaurants, malls or buildings?
"There is little awareness. No one realises that we should be allowed to live life independently," says Sunita Sancheti, access head of ADAPT (Able Disabled All People Together), an NGO working towards making the city more disabled-friendly.
Everything, from banks to hospitals, transport services to hotels, is built with scant regard to the disabled. "The trains have a very small compartment for the disabled but it is routinely used as a toilet by miscreants. When we complain to the authorities, they tell us we are responsible for it. There is also a big gap between the platform and the carriage, and the stations are completely inaccessible with no ramps and no signs," says Nilesh Singit, a disability rights activist.
The hospitality industry is no better. "The Oberoi has an accessible toilet but inside one of its rooms. The Taj got one only after ADAPT held a conference there," says Sancheti.
Hospitals, one would think, would be better equipped. But that's not the case. "There are no accessible toilets and many sections don't have ramps," says Sancheti, adding: "This is harming India economically too. With the medical tourism boom, more disabled people are coming to the city. We must serve their needs better if we want to encourage them to come here."
Delhi, it seems, is no better. Despite attempts by NGOs, social activists and the media, the picture is discouraging. The city is getting a major face-lift for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 but once again, builders are paying scant attention to the needs of the physically challenged.
The Delhi Transport Corporation buses look plush and modern but fall short when it comes to accessibility to the disabled. "The absence of curbed ramps makes it impossible for the wheelchair-bound to get on board," says Javed Abidi, an activist.
The railway stations, forget accessible, are downright hazardous. Lack of warning signs, tactile blocks and little security makes travelling a dangerous prospect for the blind.
Most government buildings are not disabled-friendly. And while modern banking and retailing may have brought about a consumer revolution, there is no way wheelchair users can use ATM machines and trolleys at retail stores.
But it's not all bleak. In Mumbai, the K Raheja Corp is ensuring all its constructions are disabled-friendly. Both the InOrbit mall and Shoppers' Stop have wheelchair-accessible toilets on every floor and ramps built to international specifications. "The cost of making these changes is minimal. And we get more business due to them," says the group's senior architect Madhuri Khandekar.
At the state level too, several positive steps have been taken. The high court had ordered all government buildings to get disabled-friendly by 2005; the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority has made it mandatory for all new buildings within its jurisdiction to do the same. "The last three years have seen some changes," says Sancheti. "It's not that people don't care, they just don't think."
In Delhi, the DTC recently reconstructed its bus bays to make it accessible to the physically challenged. And the Delhi Metro is already disabled-friendly.