The city fails them

Written by Sumegha Gulati | New Delhi | Updated: Jun 16 2014, 10:58am hrs
In fast-developing Delhi, urban transport has undergone a sea change in the last decade. But how accessible are the delhi metro, dtc buses and the railways to the differently abled Sumegha Gulati finds out

Mahesh Kumar (40) takes the Blue Line Metro daily from Uttam Nagar, where he lives, to Tagore Garden, where he teaches in a government school. In November 2013, this visually impaired man reached the Uttam Nagar (West) Metro station to board the train as usual. He was in the lift going up to the platform, when he heard the train. He asked a fellow passenger if the train had arrived. On being told it has, Kumar decided to hurry. He did not have a Metro assistant escorting him that day he had asked for one but nobody was free. So he walked unescorted towards the train. Before he knew it, he lost his balance and fell onto the tracks. Mercifully, there was no train coming on that track and Kumar escaped with minor injuries.

I was walking at the very edge of the platform and yet nobody paid attention. It was only after I fell that people screamed. That alerted the DMRC staff who came and helped me get up. Usually, I get a Metro assistant to escort me till the train. But if none are available, we have to walk alone, Kumar said.

His plight is mirrored by other visually challenged persons who commute on Delhis Metro, buses and trains every day. In the past three years, more than 30 visually challenged persons approached the National Federation of the Blind with complaints after they fell off the platforms of various Metro stations in the city.

But such incidents involving the disabled are not limited to the Metro system alone. Similar accidents on Delhis buses and at railway platforms show clearly that the capital has a long way to go when it comes to making its public spaces, particularly urban transport, disabled-friendly.

Needed: Preventive barriers on Metro platforms, helpers for visually impaired

Vice-president of National Federation of the Blind Inder Singh says the most critical problem the disabled, particularly visually challenged, face at Metro stations is the problem of falling on the tracks due to the gap between the coaches and

the platforms.

The rubber-strips between the coaches and platforms are worn out. As a result, many visually challenged people end up hurting themselves. The most recent case is that of Sanjay Jha, a North Delhi resident who works with the Railways. He fell on the tracks and fractured his left hand, Singh said.

The other problem, he feels, is an absence of steel railings on several platforms. They have metal railings at the edge of platforms in Rajiv Chowk station. Why cant they put them up at all stations he says.

Also, Metro assistants who help disabled persons at stations are reportedly unavailable most of the time. Metro has no official post of assistants. Usually, when a visually impaired or disabled person approaches a Metro official for assistance, they ask one of their housekeeping staff sweepers, cleaners, guards to escort the person. Usually, we have to wait for nearly 30 minutes for an assistant. But who has that kind of time to spare Many visually challenged students and employees are forced to board the train alone rather than get late for school, college or work, Singh says.

When Singh himself fell at the INA Metro station last year, he approached the station manager with the issue. I gave my feedback and suggestions and was told that it would be forwarded to the persons concerned. But nothing has been done so far, he says.

There are also those who feel that when it comes to aiding the disabled, the Metro is far better than other urban transport modes.

Rajive Raturi, in-charge of Asia-Pacific region of Disability Rights Promotion International, and is visually-impaired himself, feels accessibility is one of the most important concerns for people with disability and the Metro does justice to the cause to some extent.

The Delhi Metro is the latest urban transport mode, so it is more accessible than others. It has tactile gradings to guide the blind and colour markings for people with low vision. There are ramps and lifts for the benefit of the wheelchair-bound. The audio-announcement systems are also helpful.

Raturi describes the availability of helpers as a good facility, which was brought about by the efforts of young visually-impaired people.

Metro has now introduced helpline numbers for the blind, so a person receives them at the gate and escorts them till the coach, he said.

According to Singh, the Delhi Metro could look to airports to see how to help the disabled. At airports, a disabled person is given an assistant at the gate. The assistant leaves only after the person is comfortably seated in the aircraft. This must be emulated at bus stops and railway stations too, he says.

Delhi metro says

A Delhi Metro Rail corporation (DMRC) spokesperson said, We have not received any complaint from any disability rights group about visually challenged people falling on the tracks. It is highly unlikely that people have fallen on the tracks because our floors are non-slippery. The DMRC is in the process of erecting platform screen doors on Lines 7 and 8 of Phase-3. These will serve as a preventive barrier between the platform and the tracks. Subsequently, they would be put up at other stations too. The spokesperson said the entire Metro staff, including front-office personnel, are trained to deal with disabled persons. We train our staff in communicating effectively with the visually challenged, hearing and speech impaired persons, the official said.

General passengers, RPF personnel travel in coach reserved for disabled

Lakhs of passengers daily use the three railway stations in the capital the New Delhi, Old Delhi and the Nizamuddin railway stations. But, problems for a disabled traveller begins even before he/she reaches the station.

The lack of lifts, ramps and assistants apart, one of the most critical issues a disabled person travelling by train face is the difficulty in ascertaining the train schedule and his/her compartment and seat. Most rely on co-passengers to read the schedule out to them.

At present, Habibganj railway station in Bhopal is the only one in the country equipped with a Braille time table. The station also has special parking, ramps, toilets, accessible water facilities and a graded pathway on the platform for the visually impaired. Also, in another first, the seat numbers are listed in Braille in the ISO 9000-certified Bhopal Express.

Vice-president of National Federation of the Blind Inder Singh feels writing coach numbers in Braille would help the visually-impaired find their seats without any assistance.

Rajive Raturi, in-charge of the Asia-Pacific region of Disability Rights Promotion International, says, Habibganj is one of the most disabled-friendly public spaces I have come across in India. In other cities, inter-platform connectivity is a problem. Wheelchair-bound persons have to go through luggage transport corridors. The coaches are at least six to eight inches from the ground and a disabled person has to be lifted in and out of coaches. Where is the accessibility

Another issue activists highlight is the misuse of the coach reserved for the disabled by general passengers and railway staff. These coaches have broader doors and come with berths and toilets that are convenient for both the visually impaired and wheelchair-bound travellers.

Raturi says there were instances of disabled people being denied entry in some cases even being thrashed when they demanded a berth in the coach reserved for them. It is usually occupied by Railway Protection Force personnel. On several occasions, visually-impaired and the orthopaedic-disabled have been asked to vacate the coach for the railway staff.

Singh claims the Railways has removed the reserved coach from many trains. The seats are now enjoyed by general passengers who collaborate with Railway officials and buy berths under staff quota, Singh said.

Lack of separate ticket counters for the disabled is another issue,he says. One has to stand in a general queue to buy a ticket. At railway stations, they have merged all groups disabled, women, senior citizens into one, Singh said.

The e-ticket facility also cannot be used if one wants to avail the disability concession. The Delhi High Court had reportedly taken note of the issue, pulling up the Railways for the discriminatory nature of the rule. So, essentially, if a disabled person wishes to avail the disability concession, he/she must go to the station to book a ticket.

Singh also raises the issue of renewal of concession passes. Why cant it be done online Why cant they have travel cards that can be used in all modes of transport, rather than us having to run around he says.

More than anything, activists feel peoples attitudes need to change towards those with special needs. Only then can everyday issues be sorted out.

What the railways says

Neeraj Sharma, spokesperson of the Northern Railway, said most major stations in the zone have battery-operated cars to ferry the disabled and elderly from one platform to another. The number of wheelchairs and stretchers is also being increased at all stations. New Delhi railway station alone has 25 wheelchairs and stretchers, apart from 10 ferry carts. The board has sanctioned money for more lifts and escalators, he said. On the issue of concession passes and booking of tickets, Sharma said though a long-term solution needed to be worked out, at present, the Railways gives priority to disabled persons under emergency quota. As for availing the disability concession, we need to check the medical certificates of these persons. Hence, they are asked to be present in person, Sharma said.

DTC should have more friendly low-floor buses: Rights groups

Anjali Agarwal, the founder of NGO Samarthyam a disability rights organisation which works closely with IIT Delhis Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPP) feels low-floor buses are an important step towards ensuring equal accessibility for disabled persons.

One good sign is that they (DTC) have seats reserved for physically handicapped persons on the lower level. The emergency exit is strategically located near their seat to facilitate easy evacuation, she says.

But lack of audio clues, Agarwal says, is a problem. Earlier, there used to be conductors shouting the destination of the bus at each stop. The visually challenged could then decide whether or not to board the bus. This does not happen anymore, she says.

The problem can be sorted out if an announcement system is installed on all buses, she says.

According to v ice-president of National Federation of the Blind Inder Singh, since the engine of the low-floor buses is at the rear, the visually impaired can hear the bus only after it leaves a stop. Earlier, buses had engines in the front. So it would alert the visually impaired. Also, not all buses are low-floor. The inter-state buses are mostly the older ones. So, wheelchair-bound persons cannot travel on these, he said.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPD) Act, 1995, specifies that signal points must have different beeps to signify changes in the light. Zebra crossings are also supposed to have specialised signs for the convenience of the disabled. The suggestions were also approved by the Indian Road Congress, 2012, but neither has ever been implemented.

The absence of ramps at bus stops too is an issue. The BRT corridor bus stops are on the middle of the road. How is a disabled person supposed to make his/her way through the heavy traffic If there are no ramps, wheelchair-bound and persons on crutches cannot access a bus stop, Rajive Raturi, who handles the Asia-Pacific region of Disability Rights Promotion International, said.

Footpaths are another grey area. The yellow tactile-grading, which was provided across Delhi ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, were supposed to guide visually-impaired persons away from danger. Agarwal, however, claims that these tiles have been paved in such a way that instead of guiding them away from danger, it causes them to bump into trees or fall into potholes and drains.

Agarwal highlights how most benefits for the disabled would also indirectly help other vulnerable sections of the society, including children, women, senior citizens and those with medical conditions.

When it comes to public transport, things are extremely haywire in the capital. What the government needs to understand is that these facilities will help the public at large, she says.

We focus on four important principles accessibility, reliability, safety and affordability. The government needs to provide a system that is safe and efficient and affordable so that it serves the people it is meant to, Agarwal says.

What DTC says

DTC spokesperson R S Minhas said DTC has provided ramps in all low-floor buses for the benefit of wheelchair-bound persons. The conductor, on seeing a disabled person, opens up the ramp. There are also seats reserved on buses for the disabled. However, the amenities required for a disabled person to reach the bus stop are not being provided by the municipal corporation, he said.

As for signages and bus routes in Braille at bus stops, there is no plan as such in the pipeline, Minhas said. But we are in regular touch with disability-rights activists to improve the facilities for disabled persons, he said.