At present, a reservation quota of four berths in sleeper class is earmarked in the long distance mail/express trains. The escorts too are allotted berths out of this quota.
In addition to this, reservation quota of two berths in 3AC class will now be earmarked for people with disabilities.
The decision comes into effect after wheelchair user para-athlete Suvarna Raj was denied a berth convenient for people with disabilities in the Nagpur-Nizamuddin Garib Rath Express last month. This caused a furor and brought to spotlight the need for accessible seats for people with disabilities.
Following this, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had tweeted that he has ordered an inquiry into the incident.
Not pacified with this answer, Ms Raj, tweeted back saying, “Want permanent solution for persons with disabilities.”
With the push from the community and activists, a month later, the Indian Railways has come up with this solution and offered a fixed quota of lower berths in 3AC.
Activists, though pleased, also have certain questions for the government.
According to Prof TMN Deepak, accessibility rights activist, this is “just an emotional reaction to the persistent issue of accessibility in trains and not a sustainable solution.”
“The gap between train and platform is a life threat. Will the 3AC coach have a wheelchair ramp,” asked Mr Deepak, who is affected by polio, adding, “tokenism cannot suffice”.
Nipun Malhotra who was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder, welcomes the move.
“It is a step in the right direction. However, it will be of little value if the coaches aren’t accessible. They are at different levels, have narrow doors making it impossible for the persons with disabilities to enter the coaches on their wheelchairs,” added the 29-year-old Founder of Nipman Foundation.
“It shows what a government can do if it puts its mind to it. But since Suvarna’s case involved 3AC coach, the provision has been made only in 3AC,” said accessibility rights activist Vaishnavi Jayakumar.
“Is the government really going to wait till this happens in another travel class before bringing meaningful change across the board,” she questioned.
How many coaches are wheelchair accessible, asked Rajiv Rajan, Executive Director, Ektha, an organisation that fights for the rights of people with disabilities.
In certain trains, a luggage coach is converted into a coach for people with disabilities and has four seats reserved for people with disabilities. Recounting his experience of travelling in one such train eight years back, Mr Rajan, who is suffering from Cerebral Palsy, said that reservation was just a namesake in that train and railway staff and other passengers also stuffed that coach.
He also said that since this coach is at the end of the train, there is not even a platform near it. “We also didn’t get food in this coach since it’s at the end. Worst is that the coach is inaccessible with a wheelchair,” he added.
Preeti Singh, a CA student and a wheelchair user, said that it was a nightmare for her to travel in a Shatabdi train from Delhi two years ago. “I entered the train with great difficulty as there were no ramps. Porters and friends helped me get inside,” she recalled.
“I could not access washrooms as there was no space for my wheelchair to move around. After that experience, I decided not to travel by train again,” said Ms Singh who has cerebral palsy.
Reservation of lower berth is welcome, but if accessibility issues get solved, I would love to have a pleasant train journey, she said.
With waiting halls having friendly toilets for people with disabilities and many coaches with signage system in braille for visually-challenged passengers, efforts are being made to make railway experience friendly. However, the questions of accessibility and mobility inside the trains need to addressed soon.