Our cities cannot be smart, until they are accessible for everybody - Hindustan Times
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Our cities cannot be smart, until they are accessible for everybody

Oct 23, 2018 01:21 PM IST

Contractors hired to remove the barriers in the urban built environment must not be paid till civil society representatives sign off on the projects

The Delhi government’s public works department has set December 2019 as the deadline to make more than 500 buildings managed by it accessible to differently abled people, a notification issued by the department this week said. The buildings will have ramps, railings and accessible washrooms, apart from trained staff to assist the physically challenged.

Most markets in the country are not accessible for the disabled. The National Democratic Alliance government was proactive in amending the Person With Disabilities Act, 2016, to broaden its scope along with the Accessible India campaign with the objective of encouraging disabled-friendly buildings and human resource policies(Tribhuwan Sharma/ Hindustan Times)
Most markets in the country are not accessible for the disabled. The National Democratic Alliance government was proactive in amending the Person With Disabilities Act, 2016, to broaden its scope along with the Accessible India campaign with the objective of encouraging disabled-friendly buildings and human resource policies(Tribhuwan Sharma/ Hindustan Times)

At first glance, the State appears to be becoming more sensitive towards the needs of the more than 26.8 million physically challenged people in the country. The National Democratic Alliance government was proactive in amending the Person With Disabilities Act, 2016, to broaden its scope along with the Accessible India campaign with the objective of encouraging disabled-friendly buildings and human resource policies. As a part of this, 1,707 buildings were identified to be made accessible. Across 57 Indian cities, auditors provided pointers to the government on the features that could help buildings become accessible. After the audits, state governments sent proposals to the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) which released funds to retrofit these buildings. According to section 44 of the Persons with Disabilities Act, the norms for retrofitting included the creation of ramps in public buildings, modification of toilets for wheelchair users and installation of Braille symbols in elevators. But the progress on this front has been sluggish. In March this year, even the Delhi High Court criticised the slow pace at which access audits for the disabled were moving.

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In May this year, the Union finance ministry made it mandatory for new projects to incorporate accessibility costing in the total project cost when proposals are sent for expenditure finance committee approvals. This can help in creating an accessible physical environment since retrofitting later turns out to be a financial and design challenge. Any new construction project such as a flyover where pedestrian crossings are being planned or an overbridge or a new government building – would mandatorily have accessibility features built in.

As part of the Accessible India Campaign, the flagship national programme to make public buildings and transport less hostile for the physically challenged, 50% of these were to be made fully disabled friendly by July 2018. But more than two years after the launch of the campaign, only 3% of buildings have become accessible, according to the DEPwD.

It isn’t just inaccessible buildings that create barriers for the disabled. Along with that, our public transport is notoriously hostile towards the needs of the differently abled. The Centre’s target of making at least 25% of public transport disabled-friendly is yet to be met. Unlike the Metro rail, which has accessibility features built in, other trains are inaccessible. Census 2011 data reveals that of the 13.4 million people with disabilities in India in the employable age group of 15-59 years, 9.9 million were non-workers or marginal workers. Not only are we forcing millions of India’s unemployed with disabilities to be dependent on social security or their families and caregivers, the hostile environment and public transport also robs them of the dignity of carrying out tasks that everybody else takes for granted.

Access is no longer a a social duty, it’s a constitutional obligation. The government’s Smart Cities Mission offers a good opportunity to ensure inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in workplace, neighbourhood activities and in social life. Beyond displaying the political will to create disabled-friendly buildings, the government will now have to hold stakeholders accountable. Perhaps, Indian cities can emulate the example of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where disability organisations identify barriers in a city’s built environment. The contractors hired to remove the barriers are not paid till civil society representatives sign off on the projects. Our cities cannot be called smart till they are accessible for everybody.

aasheesh.sharma@hindustantimes.com

@Aasheesh74

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