Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Delhi with my Mum: an accessibility primer

This weekend, I was in Delhi with my mum, and realised how difficult it is to be even moderately infirm in India. My mum is a senior citizen and not in the best of health. She is not confined to a wheelchair or to her home (thank all concerned gods/other paranormal entities/genes/pharmaceutical companies), and is holding on to that mobility with a fiercely proud grip. It is increasingly difficult for her to do it. I was travelling with her after a very long time, and realised how accessibility can be an issue in most cities in India.
Let us look at the positive aspects of it first, shall we?
  1. A lot of public spaces being designed today (metro stations, Delhi Haat) have wheelchair access. These are well designed, with adequate turning space, and toilets.
  2. The Metro has signs in Braille, and lifts in some stations.
  3. India has a warm informal support system, where shopkeepers and strangers are willing to help people in need. This takes many forms, from giving up a seat in a train for an old lady, to allowing her to sit in one’s shop for a few minutes.

But now for the negative aspects.
  1. It was difficult to find a quiet hotel with a room on the ground floor. In the end, I had to settle for a bed and breakfast with lift access, which was not ideal.We had to walk long distances for an auto-rickshaw, and very often we had to tailor our itinerary to transport constraints- auto rickshaws do not agree to travel short distances.
  2. There are no safe and clean places to sit down and breathe in the middle of a stroll in a shopping area. You either need to grit your teeth and go on till you collapse, or settle down on the steps. This is not ideal either- apart from the cleanliness issues, it is difficult to get up from a low seat.
  3. Indian Rail is perhaps the most inaccessible public amenity ever designed. I was there with my mum and three bags. This is not excessive luggage, and all we needed to do was get onto a train. But between climbing the overhead stairs, looking for the compartment, and negotiating the narrow passages, it was hell. You know I am biased towards Indian Rail, but its accessibility needs work. Wheelchairs are available, but what do I do with them on the stairs?

What would have helped?
  1. Provide benches in market areas. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial this is. Being able to break the journey will make it possible. Providing a bench can also make the difference from ‘sitting down for a break’ and ‘collapsing of exhaustion’ for a senior citizen on a solitary jaunt. I have heard the strangest reasons for not providing these, one of them being that they will attract ‘anti-social elements’. I might be wrong, but i do believe that ASEs do not consider accessibility as one of the criteria when looking for places to haunt. And I will deal with them, thank you; I have a whole arsenal of looks-that-beseech and glares-that-intimidate at my disposal.
  2. It should be mandatory to provide lifts at public transport hubs. The Metro does have them, but not at every point of exit, and they do not go to the ground level. I agree that there are volume issues with providing lifts at railway stations. They have the potential to be a bottleneck or in worst cases, a stampede catalyst. So limit access. Make it pay-per-use. I don’t care- I need an option that saves a senior citizen the necessity of climbing the overhead bridge.
  3. Make pavements hassle-free. Delhi is trying. But we seem to have adopted the European custom of walking path- cyclist’s path- vehicles- buses. It does not work in India. Motorcyclists take over the cyclist’s path and the cyclists go onto the pedestrian area which is already occupied by hawkers, and the pedestrians give up and hail an auto-rickshaw. Cycle paths need to stay and be protected; far too many cyclists are killed. But this system needs to make space for street hawkers. There is nothing wrong with them- peddling things on the street is an important part of the economy and needs to be recognised as such. Create alcoves that are free to use for hawkers; make it impossible for scooterists to use the cycle paths. Walking should be a pleasure, not an extreme sport.

And surprisingly, I think that is all that is needed. Even the first two will be enough. But I think that the problem is not the lack of benches or lifts. The problem seems to be urban planning for automobiles and not for people. And how do we change that?


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating because I've dealt with the same issue when visiting my family in Pakistan.

I had an exacerbation of my illness while I was there and had trouble walking so used a cane. It was then that I realized even Islamabad, the capital & a fairly Westernized city, is a disability hell. No ramps, no elevators, just stairs, uneven floors, etc.

That was 3 years ago so hopefully things are changing in newer buildings but I really feel for people who are disabled, injured, or older and how tough it is for them to get around.

chicu said...

I agree, Baraka. Too many people excuse this lack of planning for the disabled by referring to the sub-continental tradition of strong family networks (old people are looked after by family and so do not need to 'fend' for themselves). But i do believe that longer life-spans and nuclear families are now here and need to be considered..