En route to the top, leave no one behind
India became the first nation to put a spacecraft in orbit around another planet in its very first attempt. However, as someone has said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
Recently, there was a scene in the Bollywood movie, ‘Zero’, where a wheelchair-user scientist Aafia — who was credited with finding water on Mars — was challenged to pick a pen off the floor while she was invited to give a talk at a function. There are many such Aafias, who dream of leading India not only on planet earth but beyond it. The only problem is that our society discriminates with them in living independently and being included in the community.
When was the last time you ever saw a wheelchair-user walking independently on the pavements or on the Rs 55-crore skywalk at ITO? Have you ever seen a blind person safely crossing the road independently or with generous help from acoustic traffic signals? As per the World Report on Disability, one in seven globally experiences some form of disability. People with disabilities are the world’s largest minority. Yet, they are unseen and unheard.
People like Aafia and I only have impairments (cerebral palsy in the former’s case and polio in mine) but it’s the society that makes us disabled by its physical and attitudinal barriers. The physical barriers include lack of accessible pavements and crossings.
Almost all bus stops in Delhi mocks disabled citizens as they proudly display International Symbol of Access. It’s a different matter that majority of them neither have kerb cuts nor pavement height less than 150 mm. Despite the transport department’s repeated pleas to use public transport, I am forced to use my own modified vehicle to live an independent life of dignity.
India was one of the major nations that ratified the United Natoions Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which was the first legally binding human rights instrument of the 21st Century. Accordingly, we have amended our disability legislation into the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.
As per Section 41(1)(c) of this law, it is the duty of the government to provide “accessible roads to address mobility necessary for persons with disabilities”. Rule 20(1)(a) of the Delhi Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules, 2018, makes it pretty clear so that there is no ambiguity on what standards to follow.
Unlike the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, we haven’t seen efforts among our society to embrace the Accessible India Campaign, which was, again, launched by our Prime Minister.
This is surprising as #RightToWalk is equally applicable to temporary abled-bodied citizens such as the elderly, pregnant women, fractured individuals and infants.
Disability is a continuum of diversity, yet we see attitudinal barriers to embrace this diversity.
We accomplished the great Mangalyaan feat on a tiny budget. We are paying cess for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. We spent crores on escalators which are not means of egress for disabled persons and thus, we fail to address the basic need of right to walk in our own communities. Despite paying taxes, I am unable to reclaim my pavements and crossings.
Recently, I was in Delhi Vidhan Sabha, where a training programme was done for the MLAs on the new Disability Act. Disability Commissioner appealed to the MLAs to promote the concept of disability-inclusive constituency and it was heartening to see MLA Timarpur expressing his desire to make his constituency disabled-friendly. If the PM can launch Accessible India Campaign, the Delhi govt can launch Mohalla Clinic, why can’t we bridge these two initiatives to start afresh from accessible Mohallas?
We need both top-down and bottom-up approach to leave no one behind. Will the commissioners, MLAs of these constituencies in Delhi take up this challenge to #MakeDelhiWalkable? Believe me, if a disabled person can walk independently with dignity on these roads, everybody else can. The Agenda 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 11) will remain an elusive dream until and unless we involve people with disabilities.
(Dr Satendra Singh is a professor at University College of Medical Sciences, New Delhi)