Mr Kejriwal, a Request From a Delhizen In a Wheelchair
It was on the 23rd of December that I appeared before the Delhi High Court with a request for the exemption of the disabled from the "Odd-Even rule" and the monthly "Car-Free Day" introduced by the Delhi Government. Many asked me why did you need to go to court?
I was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that ensured I have no muscles in my limbs, making me wheelchair-bound for life. Unfortunately for me, there are no accessible public transport options for persons with disabilities (PwDs) in the city. I know many would point to the Delhi Metro as being a disabled-friendly mode of transport. I do acknowledge the Delhi Metro for being a model example of accessible public transport with guiding paths, warning strips and tactile surfaces helping the visually challenged. Lifts and ramps have been installed ensuring access to the platform, along with rail coaches that are at the same level as the platform, making them accessible to those with locomotor disabilities.
However, the Delhi Metro doesn't offer last mile coverage. Road surfaces outside are broken and there are potholes everywhere. Surfaces often aren't hard enough and the gradient of the slope is often more than 1:12 - the maximum possible for wheelchair users to move around. Pavements almost everywhere don't have ramps, making it impossible for a person in a wheelchair to use them. For the visually challenged, problems are even larger. Tactile tiles are non-existent, while broken surfaces and the lack of sufficient high-clearance hurdles make it impossible for them to travel safely. The city also has a shortage of accessible low-floor buses, thus turning car-free and odd-even days into stay-at-home days for persons like me.
It was to highlight these issues that I wrote to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Transport Minister Gopal Rai, requesting the disabled to be exempted from the monthly Car-Free Day starting October 22. The letter kept getting passed around amongst various departments of the Delhi Government before finally reaching the Managing Director of the Delhi Transport Corporation who called me on a given date for a public grievance meeting.
On the given day, I excitedly reached the old bus terminal at Sarai Kale Khan. However, despite my condition clearly mentioned in the letter, to my shock, the meeting was scheduled on the first floor with no lift to get there. I didn't budge till they came down to hear me - a formality that they rushed through.
In December, the Delhi government went one step further by announcing the odd-even rule. This time, I was joined by a wide variety of other disabled individuals in writing to the government asking for an exemption. The response was similar.
This was what forced me to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) requesting the Delhi High Court to intervene. While various media outlets covered my request for the exemption of the disabled, my PIL also requests a mobility audit of the city.
I was born to a family that never shielded me because of my disability. My parents sent me to a "normal" school and gave me all the opportunities in life - going by that spirit I would like to follow the odd-even rule and contribute my bit to the environment too - for that the city needs to be audited and infrastructure needs to be modernized to a point where the disabled can use public transport.
In many ways, 2015 was the year for the disabled in India. Ira Singhal, suffering from a spine-related disorder, Scoliosis, topped the Civil Services. Arunima Sinha, the first female amputee to climb Mount Everest, was awarded the Padma Shri. Bunty Dada, who is diagnosed with "95% disability'" completed a Ph.D. from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
The media was quick to cover these stories of inspirational individuals who have overcome adversities to reach where they are. The government didn't take too long to join the party too - announcing Ira Singhal as the Brand Ambassador of the "Accessible India" Campaign while committing to find Bunty Dada a job.
While it is wonderful to have Ira Singhal, an extremely inspirational figure, as the face of the "Accessible India" campaign, it is also important to reflect on how in 2010 she had cleared the examination for the civil services, but was refused a posting because of her disability with authorities giving shocking reasons like "inability to push, pull and lift". While it is remarkable that she didn't give in, and instead studied harder, topping the exam, why did she have to go through this ordeal?
Bunty Dada might have overcome Cerebral Palsy to complete his Ph.D., but many find it difficult to even find an accessible college to pursue their studies. Case in point being the much-coveted University of Delhi that has about 1,500 seats reserved for the disabled, of which not more than 700 are filled in most years.
Arunima Sinha's is another wonderful story of a former national volleyball and football player who was pushed out of a train by thieves, with a train on the parallel track crushing her leg below the knee. While the then Sports Ministry offered her a paltry sum of Rs. 25,000, she decided to make the country proud by becoming the world's first female amputee to climb Mount Everest. She might have received her due by being awarded the Padma Shri, but life for para-athletes winning medals for India hasn't changed much. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was forced to suspend the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) last year for an indefinite period due to shoddy treatment meted out to athletes during the National Para-Athletics Championships at Ghaziabad, with some TV channels showing visuals of disabled sportspersons having to crawl up floors to reach their rooms due to lack of a lift.
Unfortunately, policy today has become more obsessed with playing to the galleries and creating headlines. The Juvenile Justice bill was passed without even a proper debate on inputs of the Justice Verma Committee while Shashi Tharoor's private members bill to decriminalize homosexuality wasn't even put up for debate.
I do hope that the Delhi Government doesn't feel that the job is over now that the disabled are exempt - it is the disabled's right and duty to follow the odd-even rule too. Dear Honorable Chief Minister, let's work to make Delhi the model accessible city for that to happen!