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It is a running battle between disability rights activists and government establishments to get officials to obey the law. Although it is six years since the new law on rights of the disabled was passed, the situation on the ground is far from improved, whether in public buildings, transport or roads. It was a victory of sorts, therefore, when Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) submitted in the Madras High Court on June 15, that it would make 32 stations of the Chennai Metro system disabled-friendly through retrofitting in six weeks.

The erstwhile AIADMK government under Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and later Edappadi Palaniswamy resisted buying buses for Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) that are disabled-friendly, in spite of a running legal battle over the issue. Even in its latest affidavit submitted earlier this year in the Madras High Court in Vaishnavi Jayakumar vs. State of Tamil Nadu, MTC has pleaded to be allowed to buy only a part of the new bus fleet planned of disabled-friendly design. The bus corporation admitted that its earlier submission in the court to provide a mechanical lift in the bus to help wheelchair users was a design failure.

Chennai Metro had the opportunity to leapfrog this issue, by adopting the right station design during construction, but apparently failed to do so. However, it now has agreed to retrofit its stations to meet the norms of the disability law. In this case in the High Court, Vaishnavi Jayakumar vs. State Commissioner for Persons with Disability, the petitioner has sought compliance with two statutory provisions: the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for Persons With Disabilities and Elderly Persons, of the Ministry of Urban Development, 2016, and Section 41 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 read with Rule 15 of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules, 2017.

Chennai has been at the centre of litigation by disability activists on accessible transport for years, but successive State governments have tried to brazen it out with statements of intent, and little action.

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The key demands made by the representatives of persons with disability to Chennai Metro are:

  • Anti-reflective floors
  • Wheelchair accessible ticketing booths with audio facility for hearing aid users
  • Accessible kiosks for blind and wheelchair users
  • High-contrast signage, information boards and multimodal communication
  • Sliding doors for toilets
  • Tactile, high-contrast way-finding
  • Accessible parking

A bench consisting of Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice N. Mala is hearing the petition. Although laws aimed at helping the disabled have existed on paper for years, and the latest iterations merely build on those from the 1990s, governments have done little on the implementation front.

For instance, in the case of flooring in public areas, the Harmonised Guidelines say: For people with low vision, lines of brightly coloured tape may be placed on the floor surface to assist mobility in poorly lighted areas. Contrast this with the state of many public facilities including transport termini, such as bus stands, where even basic lighting and smooth, even flooring is absent. No official is made responsible to ensure compliance with basic legal mandates.

Mandate for buses
In the case of buses, the Harmonised Guidelines are clear. They require bus doors to be at least 1200 mm wide, buses to be low floor, have handrail and footlight, have a hydraulic lift or pull-out/foldable ramp installed in the doorway for mobility aided users/prams, and have prescribed wheelchair spaces. Although the Volvo buses given to Chennai MTC under the JNNURM scheme partially met these requirements, and could have been maintained for several years of useful service, they were scrapped under archaic rules of MTC at the end of seven or eight years and dumped in an open yard in Chromepet. A series of bus acquisitions by the government ignored the stipulation of the law, provoking litigation and an injunction from the court against further acquisition by MTC if buses did not meet the disability rights law’s provisions.

For people with low vision, lines of brightly coloured tape may be placed on the floor surface to assist mobility in poorly lighted areas. Contrast this with the state of many public facilities including transport termini, such as bus stands, where even basic lighting and smooth, even flooring is absent.

Law flouted by civic bodies
Equally, the Tamil Nadu government and the local bodies, starting with the Greater Chennai Corporation continue to flout the provisions on accessible roads for persons with disability. Mobility is a continuum of various modes, starting with travel from a dwelling to a transport location and travel by a vehicle, before again using the road at the other end of the trip. As per Section 41 of the RPWD Act, the government should provide “accessible roads to address mobility necessary for persons with disabilities.”The slow pace of work on meeting disability access norms should worry the Tamil Nadu government, since it is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, notably target 11.2.1a, by which it must provide, by 2030, access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.With fast-paced urban infrastructure creation being undertaken now, including expansion of the Chennai Metro to far corners of the city – to Madhavaram, Poonamallee and Sholinganallur – and a planned purchase of hundreds of new buses with German development funding, the opportunity to adopt universal design to serve all users including those with disability is readily available. It should be used earnestly.The Chennai Metro case has been posted for July 27 by the High Court for further hearing.
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