We’ve been inundated with surveys pointing out that the national capital’s pollution is 10 times higher than WHO limits. Addressing this issue was a low-hanging opportunity, waiting to be acted upon by either the Central or state government.
On October 22, the Delhi government decided to give the city’s residents a taste of pollution-free Delhi by banning cars from the heritage corridor. This had the collateral benefit of promoting the use of public transportation. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal bicycled his way to the TRP bank by having television cameras follow him all over the city. The rich public relations dividends have spurred the Delhi government into declaring a “car-free” day in the city on January 22. Kejriwal amplified the effect by pitching the idea of bicycling to work to a leading television anchor on Twitter.
It’s unfortunate that our politics today (across the political sphere) is influenced by sound bites and TRPs. While this has increased the frequency at which new schemes and policies are announced, it reduces the quantity of thought behind such schemes. The car-free day is a shining example of an idea with great intentions that completely marginalises the disabled, the elderly and people in dire need of medical attention.
My disability has me wheelchair-bound for life. So, the car-free day in Delhi is going to be a “stay-at-home” day for me. There are no accessible public transport options for persons with disabilities (PwDs) in the city. The Delhi Metro is often celebrated for being a disabled-friendly mode of transport. It has guiding paths and warning strips helping the visually challenged via tactile surfaces. It also has lifts and ramps that ensure access to the platform, along with rail coaches that are at the same level as the platform, making them accessible to the orthopaedically challenged.
However, the Delhi Metro can never completely solve the transportation woes of PwDs, let alone on a car-free day. It doesn’t have a point-to-point solution and it needs accessible complementary modes of transport that take the disabled to and from stations. As soon as one exits a metro station, one comes across broken surfaces and potholes. 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. In fact, pavements hardly have ramps, making it impossible for a wheelchair user to use them.
For the visually challenged, the problem is even bigger. 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 lacks enough accessible low-floor buses. It would be good if the Delhi government and the city’s municipal corporations teamed up by selecting specific areas to conduct mobility audits and then made them accessible.
The chief minister has been impressively receptive and open to feedback, even correcting policies when the citizenry felt the government was going wrong. Most recently, in the case of street hawkers, he was humble enough to revisit a decision his party had taken. But the car-free day seems to be here to stay, considering the political capital he has invested in it.
In an era of constant battles for reservation, my humble submission is that we have a disabled individual on each government committee that deals with urban planning and transportation.
With the Delhi High Court calling the city a “gas chamber”, the state government decided on December 4 to announce the polarising odd-even formula that will be implemented from January 1. While the objective is to encourage the use of public transport, it clearly makes every alternate day an undesired stay-at-home holiday for me. I own even-numbered cars, and I cannot overcome this problem like the rest because of the dire public transport and private taxi situation.
The Delhi government has lofty plans of creating bicycle tracks across the city. The car-free day is a great opportunity to take stock of the dismal case of accessible transport for PwDs. An innovative idea for the government would be to make the tracks wide enough so that wheelchairs can move on them, too. I can offer theoretical solutions based on my experience and various global benchmarks, but to put these to work we need institutions that equip our designers and architects with specific disability training. When this is backed by our politicians, we will have a comprehensive solution.
I was 13 years old when I first visited Europe, and what an eye-opener it turned out to be. I saw so many people on wheelchairs — in parks, going to the workplace, and living normal lives. Until then, I had never encountered someone on a wheelchair, as PwDs in India mostly stay at home. For the first time, I felt I wasn’t an “extraterrestrial”. One of the major reasons for this was the accessible public transportation system allowing PwDs to be out in the open, which in turn eradicated the accompanying social stigma.