Access to public transport for people with disabilities has been a long standing issue often swept under the rug by the state government and the transport corporations. While the term ‘disabled-friendly’ has become a popular buzzword in various schemes, campaigns and budgetary promises, activists and citizens have pointed out how there is very little effort to really make public infrastructure accessible, safe and considerate for disabled individuals.
The Disability Rights Alliance (DRA) is a coalition of independent, community-based organisations that advocate with and for people with any disability. One of their members filed a PIL highlighting the inaccessibility of the buses run by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) operating in Chennai. The PIL especially stressed on the importance of procuring low floor buses for the sake of those using wheelchairs.
In an interview with Citizen Matters, DRA members Vaishnavi, Rajiv, Sathish, Ummul and Sudha shed light on the status of the PIL and the larger issue of accessibility across modes of public transport available in Chennai.
Could you provide a background on the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which was filed relating to the issue on floor height of MTC buses?
Rajiv: I filed a PIL in Tamil Nadu High Court in 2005, asking for implementation of certain standards in compliance with accessibility in MTC buses and trains. One of the standards that the PIL highlighted was the importance of procuring low floor buses to make it easier for people in wheelchairs to board these buses.
Vaishnavi: In response to this, the transport corporations said that they would provide a lift for those using wheelchairs, separate buses for those with disabilities, and a special routes for these buses.
In 2006 the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice AP Shah very clearly said in his judgment that no buses should be bought which are not low floor. He rejected the bus trials that were held for these bus lifts, which few of us were a part of.
The Judges who were also overseeing the trials said that the lifts would not be effective and that low floor buses should be implemented. Now between 2006 and 2016, there was a long gap with no action taken to procure low floor buses. The next time that the matter started getting heard in court was in 2016 when the court again put its foot down and refused to entertain any other solutions on this matter.
Rajiv: In the interim order by the High court in 2016, it was demanded that that buses should be made inclusive for people with disabilities, resulting in a transformation of the whole fleet, rather than providing separate buses and fixed routes that these buses would travel through.
Vaishnavi: The lack of action or accountability on the part of the Tamil Nadu Government, even after the series of court orders, is really unbelievable. Between the years 2016 to 2021, around 4000 buses were procured by the Tamil Nadu government for various transport operations across the state, not one of them was a low floor bus.
After pressure started to mount on the transport corporation in Chennai in light of Delhi now procuring low floor buses only, and passing of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 , the MTC released a peculiar Government Order (GO) in 2021, which essentially said that only 10% of the buses procured would be low floor buses.
Everything else would be what they call standard floor buses, which is a high floor bus. This is what I challenged in the High Court. The court in 2021, stated that the government cannot procure any buses unless it is low floor, however the government is citing a lack of funds as a reason for why this is being stalled for over a year now.
In 2018, MTC procured around 2000 red color buses for Chennai which are actually not even buses in the strict sense. They have bought truck chassis and put a bus body or the shell of a bus around it at a floor height of 1200 mm. So you’re literally talking about four feet high floor from the ground.
Rajiv: You won’t see any signs of kind of capitulating or even remorse that for four years over the course of which 4000 buses have been procured and none of them were low floor. Think of the difference it could have made in people’s lives. So many opportunities have been lost for disabled people as a result.
What are the alternatives that people with disabilities have had to resort to owing to inaccessibility of buses, and how does this adversely affect those from poorer and working class backgrounds?
Rajiv: Many have lost a lot of money over the years as they have had to opt for other means of transport.
Per day I spend around 1000 Rupees to move around and go to work. I usually use Ola cabs to do this. But even while using cabs, problems arise. For one, I need support getting in and out of the cabs themselves. Another problem is that many of these cabs do not have a roof carrier for carrying wheelchairs. The cab companies are also afraid to dirty the cars and so wheelchairs cannot be kept inside the vehicle as well.
Vaishnavi: Sometimes people prefer to go with known people and known drivers who are more acquainted with operating wheelchairs and such. But that is definitely costlier, and you’re paying for peace of mind as well.
Sathish: For me, the amount of money per month that goes into to paying for cabs comes up to around Rs. 10,000. In the case of bus and train, the monthly expense would not be more than Rs 1500. Currently the monthly pension that is entitled to people with disabilities only comes up to Rs. 1500 per month.
Many people with disabilities also do not have jobs or are currently studying.
If the pension is only 1500 rupees, then how will they be able to spend more than Rs 5000 to 10,000 per month on commuting by cab? This also further affects people’s ability to take up job and education opportunities as their mobility is heavily restricted. So, unless transport and buildings have been made accessible, people will not be able to succeed in their life at all, as more and more problems are created for them.
A recent statement by the DRA mentions how previous measures taken in the name of ‘disabled-friendly’ infrastructure have been inadequate and often laughable. Could you elaborate on this?
Sathish: Even though they say that buses are free for people with disabilities, I do not know how many people can actually make use of this. While people with certain disabilites could potentially make use of this, maybe people with visual impairment or hearing impairment, consideration is not given to the people with many different kinds of disability.
Vaishnavi: In a recent article that came out a few days ago, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) has announced that it will be making bus stops along the Thriuvanmayur to Thiruvottiyur accessible, “barrier-free” and “disabled-friendly”.
However, if you really look at the tenders for this project, you will see the lack of effort that goes into these promises. The tenders have nothing to do with making the bus stops disabled-friendly; there is no mention of ramps, floor height or railings. The tenders merely mention details related to road-laying and construction.
It seems to be that these measures are taken mostly for the sake of publicity. Other measures also seem hollow, such as reserving seats in the bus for disabled people or providing free bus passes. These measures wouldn’t matter for someone who can’t even board the bus to begin with.
One of our other friends who is a disabled lawyer had done a follow up in relation to Rajiv’s PIL ,and highlighted how the government has often stated that since many buses have followed certain parameters from the Rights of Disabled Persons Act, they are thus disabled-friendly.
However they often only implement measures that fall under one or two parameters – one of these is reserving two seats for disabled people. Then it was said that putting rings for crutches makes MTC buses ‘disabled-friendly’. But crucial measures that require reevaluating the initial design are often sidelined and ignored.
What needs to be done then to make these buses closer to the goal of being disabled-friendly?
Sudha: The first thing is that low floor buses are a must. There should also be announcements about the steps when people are trying to get on. Also announcements should be made for people with visual impairments on what buses have arrived. This could be done via a particular device that the people can carry. So if a bus passes, there should be an announcement of the numbers saying which bus is here and which is passing and which is arriving.
What happens very often is that that many people, when asked, will say that they will tell you when your bus is arriving so that you can board the right bus, and so we can wait peacefully. While you are waiting however, that person would have already left in their own bus, and you would have continued to wait for them to tell you if your bus has arrived. The solution tackles one very specific problem that blind people have, which is identifying which of the buses has arrived at the stop and which one the person needs to get on.
Vaishnavi: The announcement device and a radio transmitter on the bus is a good solution for this as it is a low-tech solution. The device can be the size of a keychain. How it would work is that the person would choose which bus they would get on, based on announcements of when the buses are coming, and based on the various buses that are being announced on the device.
The process is all automated and there is no human element involved. This would allow for a more independent experience of travelling for a visually impaired person, as opposed to depending on others at the stop. This has actually been tested out in Bombay, yet has not yet been widely deployed despite that the fact that is has been proven to be effective. Governments often speak of creating smart cities and smart transport yet they fail to get the ball rolling on these type of smart, economical solutions.
Rajiv: A major barrier here among officials and those in planning and administrative positions is that an attitude change is required; design and policy making requires a human rights approach.
In addition there are no strong punishments for non-compliance of legal measures in place such as The Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016.
How does the metro compare when it comes to being disabled-friendly?
Ummul: During the Metro Audit that we conducted on 22nd March 2022 in seven new stations including Koyambedu, CMBT, Arumbakkam, Vadapalani, Ashok Nagar, Ekattuthangal and Alandur, we noticed a number of issues. This was my first time going on the metro.
A key issue was that there was a gap between the train and platform, where wheelchairs get stuck. Even in terms of accessibility to drinking water, the height of water dispensers were too high for someone on a wheelchair to reach, that too I would have had to keep pressing the dispenser for water, which would be very inconvenient for me.
In the lifts, the emergency services such as the phone was too high for me to reach. Another thing was that the ticket collecting pathways were not wide enough for me to travel through on wheelchair.
Vaishnavi: For the metro stations, for a long time we have been asking for a portable ramp to compensate for the gap that is there between the platform and the train. Many metro stations in other cities have dealt with this problem by using this roll-able ramp.
How it would work is that, the people on the platform who are there to oversee entry into the metros, as and when a wheelchair user approaches, can unfold the ramp so that person can conveniently enter the train and then they can fold back the ramp.
What is frustrating is that, whenever organizations or collectives like ours have been asked to provide examples of solutions to make public spaces like these accessible, we provide visuals, studies, and cases such as these that have been implemented successfully in other cities (such as the case of the Delhi Metro), but there is not much effort once this is done.
Another issue is that ‘travelling independently’ is not given priority. Whenever we bring up any issues to those at Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) or MTC they often say, we have staff to help you so we don’t have to worry. It doesn’t matter if we ourselves want to travel independently.
Sathish: Even in the case of wanting to travel with more assistance from staff, there is a lack of effort and proper communication. I would like for a number of someone from CMRL to for me to call, when I reach the station to help me out of the car. The number could be put up on the CMRL app or website, mentioning from what time their services are available and how to contact them for any kind of disability facilitation.
Many also do not know how to properly handle a wheelchair; often people just push the wheelchair forward when getting out of the train instead of angling them. As for trains, every train has a ramp under the seat in each compartment, but in practice you will not be able to even use the ramp as they are locked.
Since many of you have taken a lot of these concerns to officials, what are the usual reasons that city officials give to stall a lot of the measures proposed?
Vaishnavi: There is a confidence among officials, whether those at MTC and CMRL, or politicians that they can get away with their own way of dealing with these issues. There is an attitude of mistrust towards any of us who bring up these issues. They think that these kind of issues and the people who flag them are a nuisance and that we are just making noise. The approach seems to be that people can be worn down by blocking them at every point, not answering them, as after a while they will get tired and will stop. For how many more years can we also keep doing these audits and flagging what is inaccessible and what can be done?
Whenever the government has taken up projects and schemes related to disability issues, the aim seems to be more to show a good face to the courts and gain publicity. For example, we have an accessible beach project with the Greater Chennai Corporation. We managed to get these beach wheelchairs, and the government was willing to do what we asked. Maybe it is easier for non-disabled people to relate to because it’s such a romantic thing to see people accessing the beach for the first time and it makes for great pictures. It’s a very feel good initiative.
At the same time the CMRL was not willing to get a platform boarding device and the MTC yet to procure low floor buses for the whole fleet. Why some efforts work and how it work, we are unsure as to the exact reasons. There is also a lack of transparency for different projects.
Sudha: This is a classic case of how the attitude at the planning and government level needs to be changed. Disabled people are only looked at as passengers in need of assistance. You won’t find that there are any disabled employees in the Metro or MTC, or even planners who are part of such projects. This reflects in the overall treatment where there are significant gaps in public infrastructure which then need to be compensated for.
Vaishnavi: Publicity and a feel-good factor plays a role into what gets implemented and with how much care. People, planners, and the government are still not viewing this as a civil right issue, as an access issue and as an issue of freedom. These measures are understood as something being done unto, being done for disabled people, rather than a mistake in your original design.
As long as people do not accept that whatever you do has to include diversity, then whatever is being made is only usable by some and not by all. While the government says that it is inclusive, that they are with disabled people, that they will help, the reality is that they still will not buy low floor buses.