On May 24, during the last day of the '5th Smart Cities India 2019 Expo' being held in Delhi's Pragati Maidan, disability rights activist Nipun Malhotra had been invited to speak on the topic of accessibility in public transport for persons with disability in smart cities. His panel was named, "Redefining Public Transport".
Incidentally, the managers of the event had no provisions in place for wheelchair-bound Malhotra, who needed a ramp to get to the stage to deliver his speech.
An "appalled and amused" Malhotra posted the incident on social media.
"It was bizarre that they did not have a ramp in place. The irony was that I had been invited to give a talk on just that - how accessible are public spaces and transport for persons with disabilities," Malhotra said.
Born with severe locomotor disability from birth, called "arthrogryposis", Malhotra's condition renders him permanently dependent on wheelchairs for mobility. He added that the incident angered and amused him at the same time. "The fact remains that the country continues to understand precious little in terms of disability rights and what needs to be done to help those affected".
Left with no options, Malhotra had to request two assistants to hoist his wheelchair up to the four steps of the podium as he did not want to disappoint those who had come to hear him speak at the venue. "It was greatly disappointing and strange that they could not even devise a temporary ramp, even as their panel hoped to discuss access of public transport for the disabled," the activist said.
The apathy reflected the lack of serious understanding and commitment of ministries and authorities in India to empower those with disabilities, Malhotra added. In fact, the activist-entrepreneur has for long been fighting the Delhi government and transport department along with various other institutions that are tasked with safeguarding the rights of citizens. In February this year, he moved Delhi High Court with a PIL seeking a stop on Delhi government's plan to acquire 2,000 buses that were disabled-unfriendly.
While initially the court did not grant a stay order on the procurement of the buses, it did send a notice to the Delhi government regarding the same. In March this year, the Delhi cabinet approved reimbursements for fitting hydraulic lifts to the standard bus floors of 1000 CNG buses to make them more accessible to all.
According to the Delhi-based Malhotra, it was even odder that the venue did not have a ramp even after inviting a person with a disability to talk at the event. The 32-year-old felt said that there are three As that are of central importance in the lives of disabled people - A for attitude, A for accessibility and A for acceptance.
However, the organisers of the event - The Exhibitions India Group (EIG) - and co-organisers India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) - failed to grasp the importance of even the basic needs of specially-abled persons. EIG is a private enterprise that acts as "an interface between businesses, government, academia, society, media, etc," as per the official website of the annual Smart City Expo. ITPO is stated as the premier trade promotion agency of the Ministry of Commerce & Industry, Government of India.
The lack of awareness and sensitivity toward disabled persons, even in events organised by central government bodies or related institutions, only proves that legal safeguards could be the sole recourse left to disabled persons in the country. Speaking to News18, Malhotra, who has been a champion for disability rights for almost a decade and is the CEO of Nipman Foundation, an NGO that focuses on bettering the lives of persons with disability, said that it was not enough to build infrastructures when officials in government offices, as well as others in civil society, failed to act sensitively.
India has over 21 million people living with disability, as per Census 2011 data. This could be due to accident, age or induced by a certain medical condition. However, as per World Bank data, the number is significantly higher at about 40 to 80 million, with at least one person with disability in every twelve households. Yet, only three percent of buildings in the country are accessible to persons with disability.
Malhotra stressed that altering construction by-laws to include provisions of disabled-friendly infrastructure in buildings was probably the quickest way to increase the number of "inclusive" buildings and structures. "Just like builders need to sign fire NOCs, stringent laws should exist that mandate the construction of disabled-friendly provisions in every building," Malhotra insisted.
Another way to increase sensitisation could be to include disability studies, or studies centred on disability in schools. While the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, was passed in 2016 with a view to safeguard rights of this group, much may still need to be done in terms of completely removing discrimination and inequality against persons with disabilities.