The recent incident of IndiGo denying boarding to a specially-abled child reflects poorly on the airline, but is just one more example of how India repeatedly fails people with disabilities or those with special needs. While IndiGo has tried to defend the indefensible, it clearly is in violation of not just the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Jeeja Ghosh case, but also of the civil aviation requirements with regards to Carriage by Air of Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility. The rules explicitly state that “once persons with disability or reduced mobility report at the airport with valid booking and intention to travel, the airline shall provide assistance to meet their particular needs and ensure their seamless travel … without any additional expenditure.” It also calls for airlines to train their staff on dealing with people with disabilities.
But the perception arising from the IndiGo incident is that whatever training that the airline provided proved perfunctory in the end, and did not cultivate any meaningful sensitisation. What’s worse, not only did IndiGo callously offer an electric wheelchair to the affected family as reparation for their ordeal and humiliation, it also doubled down on its decision to deny boarding. It is only fair that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has instituted a probe into the incident. As the general secretary of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, Muralidharan has pointed out, the civil aviation regulator itself has not acted against airlines for violations listed in the Schedule VI of the Aircraft Rules 1937, specifically related to the breach of Rule 133A. So, if the state seems to pay only lip service to the rights of persons with disabilities, can IndiGo alone be blamed? Indeed, in Jeeja Ghosh, the Supreme Court noted that, “the subject of the rights of persons with disabilities … creates an obligation on the part of the State to take positive measures … It is a sad commentary that this perceptions has not sunk in the mind and souls of those who are not concerned with the enforcement of these rights.” Apathy towards the enforcement of the rights of the disabled would also put India in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which India ratified in 2007.
India has an enabling framework within its laws. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, for instance, reposes on the state a wide array of functions to ensure awareness regarding disabilities and non-discrimination. The failure is obviously of implementation of well-intended laws. There is no doubt that airlines are vested with the responsibility to ensure the safety of passengers and deny boarding/de-board individuals if this is under risk or threatened. But that responsibility cannot be carried out to the detriment of a larger one—preserving the dignity of persons with disabilities. In Jeeja Ghosh, the Supreme Court asked the DGCA to consider the petitioners recommendations on fine-tuning its rules to make the regulatory architecture more responsive to the rights of the disabled. Incidents like the present one would suggest the apex court’s directives have not been acted upon—or, if otherwise, the change is merely in name.
IndiGo is just the latest symbol of the overall social apathy towards such people. Negative views on disability are deeply rooted in tradition, and awareness is a huge challenge. It is only recently that disability was included in census data. The number of people with disabilities was grossly underestimated in the 2011 census. The government has also not been proactive enough. For example, the Accessible India Campaign, launched in 2015 to make transport and public spaces accessible to differently-abled people, has fallen way short of its targets, forcing frequent revision of timelines.