In the summer of 2008, Virali Modi traveled from Mumbai to New Delhi on Indian Railways for medical purposes. A near-death experience in 2006 had left her wheelchair dependent and she was traveling by the railways for the first time since. As a young women passenger, however, her experience left her distressed and unsettled. When her mother rolled her in on the wheelchair near the entrance of the Mumbai railway station, Modi was taken aback by the abysmal condition the ramp was in. It was marked by beetle juice stains, spit and urine, and blocked by commuters. After much persistence, they finally gave her way.
Modi’s mother needled the wheelchair through the crowd of commuters and porters, and she finally reached her train’s platform. When the Rajdhani train pulled into its station, however, Modi was overwhelmed by the anxiety. “The first thought that entered my mind was, how will I get inside the train? There was no ramp; the doorway was extremely narrow and the wheelchair wouldn’t possibly fit in,” she told The Indian Express. The only way to board the train was to be lifted up and carried to the seat. Modi’s mother managed to find two coolies who were apprehensive at first, but eventually decided to do the deed. “At first, the two discussed with each other as to how they would lift me – who would hold which part of my body. It was really awkward.” The situation escalated to becoming uncomfortable. “One guy held me between my legs, from underneath my knees, while the other went inside the train and grabbed me by placing his hands underneath my armpits. While he was doing that, he put his hands on my breasts. Initially, I thought it was unintentional, something that could have happened by mistake, but his hands felt me up repeatedly till the time I was put on my seat.”
Modi remembers looking down in embarrassment, unable to look at any of her co-passengers as she was guided to her coach, “Everybody was staring at me, but no one said a word. At that time, I didn’t say anything to the coolie either because I was scared that he’d drop me.” Later, Modi made the decision not to inform her mother about what had happened in order to avoid commotion. Lodging a complain wasn’t an option either; as a 17-year-old at that time, she was fearful that it might unnecessarily embroil her mother and her in an precarious situation. “I was so embarrassed. I felt ashamed – not for myself, but for the coolies,” Modi continues.
“I wondered why these men were taking advantage of my disability. Why hadn’t the government implemented appropriate facilities for those who were disabled? Did it not care about our safety? Those were the thoughts that were running through my mind at that time. I was ashamed because these were my people, my country, and this was the way I was being treated.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time such an incident would occur. In her succeeding train experiences (one in 2011 and another in 2014), she was groped by porters again.
This month Modi, who is a Disability Rights activist, a writer, a motivational speaker and a former Miss Wheelchair India Runner-Up, decided to finally take the matters in her own hands. She began a petition on Change.org titled, “Implement disabled-friendly measures in Indian railways”. In the petition (which has received over 60,000 signatures at the time of writing this piece), Modi listed the debilitating challenges and difficulties she has faced as an invalid woman traveling by the railways. Being forced to wear a diaper due to the inaccessibility of bathrooms was one of them. “The toilets are so compact that a wheelchair definitely cannot fit in. The commodes are too low and the sinks are too high. I’ve therefore had to wear diapers, which in itself is an embarrassing feeling. It gets soiled and wet, but I’ve have to wait till night, until the lights have been switched off, so that my mom can help me change them. At the same time I feel unsafe, because there is no privacy. There are no proper curtains in place and anyone with a prying eye can see what I’m doing,” she says.
Initially, Modi had decided to approach the government herself. A month ago, she had sent countless tweets to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, voicing her demand for disabled-friendly trains. She posted an Open Letter addressed to both of them, and even filled out the grievance forms on their websites. The only response she got was an automated reply from the Prime Minister’s office stating that it had received the form and had redirected to the Ministry of External Affairs. The Ministry conveniently closed her case with a succinct reply: The grievance did not pertain to their specific ministry. “I was furious,” recalls Modi, “because they hadn’t read my letter!”
From the Railway Ministry, there was a deafening silence.
Modi’s story holds a magnifying glass over not only how inept our transportation apparatus is in terms of handling the disabled, but how little concerned our government is in terms of addressing the needs of those who’re physically-challenged. Though we have over 21 million people who suffer from one disability or another, they are still treated as minorities.
In 2016, Voice of Specially Abled People (VoSAP), an advocacy-focused platform, provided a memorandum to Suresh Prabhu ahead of his annual budget stating, “Based on variables such as number of platforms, trains per day, average daily passenger traffic at the station (5% of which assumed to be people with disabilities including Senior Citizens), type of station etc., railways should provide suitable solutions and devices for passengers to safely get into the train”. In 2017, while India’s Finance Minister announced that it would make 500 railways disabled-friendly by installing lifts and escalators, it seemed like a half-hearted attempt.
You see, installing lifts is not enough. Making wider doorways, revamping the trains so that wheelchairs can maneuver easily through the compartment corridors, expanding bathroom space, reducing the gap between the platforms and the trains, employing staff to protect the compartments built specifically for the handicapped – are a few of the things the Railway Ministry should invest funds in. The fact that the government is spending ridiculous amounts of money on bullet trains and building larger-than-life memorials glorifying certain Maratha kings , it’s unfathomable why it shies away from providing basic facilities for the disabled. “The thing is, not many can afford a plane ticket,” explains Modi. “A train is a cost-efficient mode of transportation and there are so many people who’re using the railway every day in India. It’s high time things change.”
Since the time she has started her petition, Modi has received a deluge of messages from doctors, physicians, the disabled, their relatives and even those who aren’t psychically-challenged, promising unwavering support. She has even received anecdotes from people sharing their own experiences about insensitive train personnel. “There was one instance where a lady had a fractured foot and she wanted to board the train. She requested the ticket collector to stop the train for her and he didn’t do it. And due to that, she fell and now she’s bed ridden. There have also been other women who have been manhandled while boarding the train, so mine is not a unique story,” she shares.
“The thing is, we don’t need sympathy, we don’t need pity, we need empathy. We need the government to empathise with us and provide facilities. Ever since I’ve become disabled, I’ve been trained by therapists to be as independent as possible, and my government is making my life as an independent, disabled woman difficult,” Modi says. And that’s a fact. Even though approximately 5 percent of the population is disabled and travels by trains, they shouldn’t be disregarded.