The condition of Indian railways, particularly for differently-abled travelers has always been abysmal. In February, when the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley announced that 500 railways will be made disabled-friendly by installing lifts and escalators, many felt it was not enough.
As a differently-abled woman traveler, Virali Modi faced several inconveniences while using the railways. She was forced to be physically dependent on porters, who had to lift her from her wheelchair and carry her to her seat – the wheelchair could not enter the train due to space constraints. For Modi, the experience was extremely humiliating – the porters had groped and felt her up in the process. Mortified, it pushed Modi to launch a petition on Change.org (http://bit.ly/2kSChUZ ) that demanded the government to wake up and ensure that better measures were implemented for the disabled. It was a plea that demanded directing immediate attention on differently-abled travelers (particularly women) for whom traveling on trains were experiences marked with humiliation and mockery.
In an interview with indianexpress.com Modi expressed her disillusionment with the government, “People with disabilities are treated like minorities, even though more than 5% of the population is disabled. The government needs to step up its game and provide facilities for us to make our lives better. No one becomes disabled willingly. We don’t need sympathy, we don’t need pity, we need empathy. We need the government to empathize with us and provide facilities.”
Yesterday, her petition (which has received over 82,000 supporters so far), finally got a response from the Railway Minister, Suresh Prabhu. He tweeted:
Activists have now stepped in to offer ideas to the Railway Minister. Nipun Malhotra, a disabled-rights activist, who suffers from arthrogryposis, believes that while Jaitley announced that 500 railways would be made disabled-friendly, that alone wasn’t sufficient. He told indianexpress.com, “Even if the government makes the railways accessible, it doesn’t really mean that they’ll make the trains accessible as well. And that’s my primary concern – a lot of people are talking about stations, but not enough focus is being placed on trains.”
Founder of The Quill and differently-abled rights activist Shakthi Vadakkepat agrees. He ardently believes that Indian trains need a revamp. Wider doorways for easy wheelchair access, larger bathrooms and staff sensitivity are few of the important measures that need to be implemented immediately. “For a disabled person, boarding a train directly from the platform cannot be done without assistance – that needs to change. Besides this, toilets are completely inaccessible, and if the journey is for more than four hours, it becomes a problem, because nobody can hold on for that long.”
Virali Modi agrees. She had to wear diapers whenever she traveled by trains.
Staff sensitivity is crucial as well. Differently-abled travelers need to be treated with dignity and respect. “They (the railway personnel) should stop treating us like charity cases,” says Vadakkepat. “The last time I traveled by trains – which was 10 years ago – it was made very clear to me that I was not welcomed there. From that day on, I stopped traveling by trains.” The government therefore, needs to take strict measures in training railway officials.
Besides this, Nipun Malhotra feels that ramps need to be maintained and wheelchairs should be provided to those in need for ease in movement. “While there are ramps built at stations, they are in poor condition. Wheelchairs are often not available, plus there are no signs informing the disabled how they can reach the platform on their own,” he says.
More importantly, a trained railway personnel should be employed. While the government might take measures to improve the facilities, if the staff isn’t trained about how to use and guard these facilities, it’ll defeat the purpose. “I’ll give you an example,” says Malhotra. “In Delhi, the government had introduced low-floor public buses, in order to make it easier for the people in wheelchairs to board. But the problem was that the conductors weren’t trained how to handle or use the ramps. As a result the ramps were not maintained. Soon they began breaking and falling apart. So just talking about accessibility and making a few stations accessible as a token is not enough – the railway staff too, needs to be trained.”
While the Accessible Indian Campaign, which was introduced by the central government in 2015, has made efforts to improve the facilities in public transport for the disabled, it has missed its deadlines countless times. “Because of that people have lost faith in the campaign,” Malhotra claims. “There needs to be a time-bound plan of action in which all can be executed. The government should concentrate on improving the situation in six metropolitan cities first and aim at making them disabled-friendly in the next year or so. It should then use that as a model to replicate it across the country. A step-based approach, one which is time-bound, has targets and can show results is something that is needed, rather than just tweeting about it.”
Besides the aforementioned ideas, here are a few more suggestions for the Railway Minister:
1. Redesigning the trains is crucial. Not only do the compartments should have wider doorways so that wheelchairs can enter, but the corridors within the compartments should we wider to ensure ease in maneuvering the wheelchair.
2. The wide gap between the train and the platform needs to be reduced. Also, the train’s floor and the platform need to be at a leveled height, so that wheelchairs can be pushed in with ease. Else, proper ramps should be provided at each doorway.
3. Sufficient women compartments should be allotted, so that disabled women travelers don’t find it inconvenient to travel. These compartments should be guarded by a trained railway personnel, to prevent misuse of the compartment by those who aren’t handicapped.
4. Ramps provided at stations should be maintained and be kept clean and accessible. They should also be accompanied with rails on either side to assist those who need support.
5. A sufficient number of wheelchairs should be provided at stations, free of cost.
One should hope that Virali Modi’s petition will push Suresh Prabhu to improve the facilities for those who are not only differently-abled, but for the elderly as well. How quickly will the ministry move and take appropriate measures however, is something one can’t tell, but only hope for.
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu acknowledged the suggestions put forward by IndianExpress.com and welcomed people to participate in the Railways Innovation Challenge to work on these.
1/Welcome the suggestions,we are working on many,also invite ppl to participate in the Railway Innovation Challenge on some of these points https://t.co/PfcVpiSTfS
— Suresh Prabhu (@sureshpprabhu) February 10, 2017