On Monday morning, Lokhandwala resident Jasmina Khanna, 48, got dressed and patiently waited or her pre-booked cab. She had to go to a polling booth in Versova to cast her vote in the ongoing state Assembly elections. Khanna was excited. After all, it wasn't every day that one got to exercise their democratic rights.
Exercising one's democratic right, however, is not as easy for all. Unlike most registered voters, Khanna had certain specific needs. Khanna had cerebral palsy, a permanent movement disorder that inhibits free movement weakens muscles and impairs coordination.
Despite being registered voters, lack of inclusive transport facilities, long queues and untrained polling staff and service providers make it difficult for differently-abled voters to exercise their right to vote, especially those who do not have family, institutional support or high finances to depend on.
During the ongoing Maharashtra state Assembly elections, however, a taxi service exclusively for persons with disabilities has been helping those in need with pick-up and drop services. It was this service that Khanna chose. In fact, she has been using the service for almost two years now and sears by it.
EzyMov is the first wheelchair-taxi created exclusively with the purpose of ferrying mobility-impaired citizens in India including persons with disability (PWD), those with temporary disabilities and the elderly. By 12 pm on Monday, the platform had already transported about 600 persons with disability to different booths across Mumbai.
"Customised vehicles and transport facilities for PWD helps us live and commute with dignity, without requiring the help of others," Khanna, who is an employee at an IT company in Mumbai and needs to regularly commute to and from work. Khan has also been working with the Brihanmunshi Municipal Corporation to make one of the 14 wards in Mumbai PWD-accessible. However, according to Khanna, despite efforts by both central and state government to increase awareness, only about 5 percent of Mumbai is so far PWD-inclusive.
In March, the Election Commission in Maharashtra launched a 'PWD' mobile app to assist persons with disabilities. To make elections more accessible for the 2.24 lakh registered PWD voters across the state, the EC also introduced measures such as ramps in election booths, wheelchairs as well as pick up and drop facilities.
Despite the efforts, Mumbai continues to be low on the disability-friendly scale. In August 2019, a "spot-check" conducted by wheelchair-using businessman Karan Shah for news channel Mumbai Mirror found that most public toilets, railway stations, post offices and other public buildings in the city did not comply with the recommendations of made by the central government in 2015.
The toilets lacked differently designed cubicles for PWD and most buildings including local railway stations and platforms lacked ramps and slopes. Many roads across the city lacked footpaths. Most buses under the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) did not have ramps for wheelchair users.
It was with this in mind that EzyMov began in 2016 with a view to providing an intrinsic service to PWD - easy, accessible and dignified transport. With a fleet of 25 taxis, EzyMov currently has offers services in Mumbai, Goa, and Jamshedpur and is also looking to expand to New Delhi where it has one car. According to its founder Bennet Dcunha, there is an ever-growing demand for PWD-friendly mobility services.
"It's like an Ola and Uber for PWD," Dcunha told News18, adding that every day EzyMov got about 450-500 appointments every day. Apart from a privileged few, most PWD in India do not have access to customized vehicles for transport, Dcunha said.
In many developed nations, ramps and hydraulic lifts are commonplace. In London, for instance, all black cabs are wheelchair-accessible and the UK government mandates the same for licenses taxis in larger cities. It also provides assistance for persons in areas without the mandate to locate wheelchair cabs.
EzyMov cabs have mechanised ramps fitted to the back of the vehicles so that no additional help is required by PWD to get in or out of the car. However, outside the car, the city continues to pose challenges.
Take Miss Khanna's case, for example. "Though I could take my own ride to the booth, there was no ramp at the entrance to the polling booth," Khanna said. She had to be lifted across steps by people near her to help her get to the booth. The same booth during the Lok Sabha elections had had a ramp. "If you want more persons with disability to come out and vote, make polling booths accessible, please!" an exasperated Khanna told News18.
(Jasmina Khanna had to be lifted by police personnel and assisted into the booth due to lack of a ramp.
Khanna also pointed out that even in the case of transport, only the privileged or financially stable PWDs could access services like EzyMov. For truly increasing inclusion, the private and public sectors need to work together with civil society to make basic services like mobility and transport available to PWDs.
In 2016, India had over 103 million persons above the age of 60. By 2050, the elderly population of India is expected to triple. With an ageing population, finding alternative, safe and accessible transport for all becomes all the more imperative.