I am 44 and have cerebral palsy. I vividly remember my trip from Chennai to Delhi by train in the early nineties mainly because of the starvation I had to bear before starting my train journey. I used to start my diet by eating little or no solids almost 36 hours before I started from Chennai. This was necessary for the toilets in the train were inaccessible for a wheelchair user like me. The aisles of the train were also not wide enough and my wheelchair would often get stuck in it. I also did not eat solid food during the 33 hours of my travel, which would total up to three days of survival only on minimal liquid food. By the time I reach Delhi, usually for three-four days for conferences, I would be tired and not in a position to attend or focus on the meetings that I went for. After a day or two of normal food, I would start preparing for my return travel the same way I did for my onward travel. In a space of 10 days, I would be surviving only on small amounts of liquid for six to seven days all because of the inaccessible toilets and aisles in the train.
Getting into the train was another nightmare as it is even now. Just a slip and I would be under the train between the platform and the wheels. I was happy when I saw the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act that said railway coaches would be made accessible. But little did I realise at that time that this would be one of the many laws that would remain on paper.
Even after the onset of United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which lays stress on reasonable accommodation and accessibility, nothing seems to change with the Indian railways.
In between, disgusted with the experiences of train travel and with the support of a couple of lawyers, I filed a PIL urging the railways to make the stations and coaches accessible. There were some sporadic changes in railway stations, facilities such as ramps were built in almost all the stations, I believe accessible toilets were also built in major stations and that is when the railways came up with the idea of a special coach for the people with disabilities. To give a little bit of credit to the railways, inside the special coach was kind of accessible but the same story continued to get into the train, which was next to impossible.
It was during one of those days, I had an opportunity to get into the ‘disability coach’ of one of the trains from Thenkasi to Chennai. I was astounded, to say the least, to see 15 to 20 people in a coach where only four people can sit. Mine was an overnight travel and had to sit on the floor and travel through the night. Couple of my colleagues, who were also persons with disabilities, had to sit on their wheelchairs the whole night in a moving train, which was as dangerous as you could think it to be. Apart from the crowd in the disability coach, there were other issues with the coach such as railway employees getting into the coach without any restriction, as a result of the compartment being unreserved one. This coach is attached at one end of the train and in some cases, the trains used to be so long that this coach will stand away from the platform. This makes it difficult for people to purchase food and other required stuff during their travel.
In the last incident, in Bangalore, it was a chilly morning and the train stopped in the last platform. There was no way I could get out of the station without crossing a number of railway tracks. My wheelchair’s front wheel was caught in one of those tracks and I fell forward. Escaping with minor injuries was fortunate enough. This is another very critical problem with all railway stations except may be Chennai Central where one does not have to cross railway track to move from platform to platform. The over-bridges are either full of steps or have too steep a ramp for wheelchair users to climb up or down. The pertinent questions here would be to ask “Has any of these issues mentioned above been sorted by now?” The appalling answer is ‘no, not at all’, which means the Indian Railways stands where it was in the early 1990s with respect to accessibility for persons with disabilities.
If a person with disability cannot enter a railway station, get from one platform to another and get into the train itself, what is the use of the disability compartment? Or what is the use of reserving berth for disabled people irrespective of the class? When will the railways wake up to the calls of at least 8 per cent of the population of India?
Railways are supposed to be one of the largest revenue generators for the government. This implies that lack of funds is not the reason. Given this, we are left to wonder what is stopping this largest network from being accessible.
— Rajiv Rajan has cerebral palsy and is currently the Executive Director of Ektha, an organisation that works for people with disabilities. He has been an accessibility rights activist since 20 years.
– Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.