As we look forward to observing World Disability Day on December 3rd, it is pertinent to question whether Bengaluru is satisfactorily accessible, in terms of public spaces, buildings, mobility, public transport, for persons with disabilities or if there is a lot left to be desired. “The most difficult thing is accessibility to resources and information for people living with disabilities,” says Parinitha P, a resident of Bengaluru and a Person with Disability (PwD).
Disabled-friendly infrastructure – only on paper
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPWDA) notified the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for Persons with Disabilities and Elderly Persons issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs [MOHUA]. The Harmonised Guidelines were since revised in 2021.
As Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy’s white paper, titled ‘Beyond Reasonable Accommodation: Making Karnataka’s Cities Accessible by Design to Persons with Disabilities, points out, the above lays down the accessibility standards for various aspects of the built environment: internal and external elements, toilets, stairs, corridors, lifts, parking, etc.
The Harmonised Guidelines are binding and apply to all public buildings (private or government establishments). Specifications for various categories of buildings, which includes accessibility standards are set out in the building bye-laws issued by a municipal body, which in Bengaluru is the BBMP.
The BBMP Building Bye-Laws issued in 2003 are still applicable to construction of buildings. The effectiveness of the implementation of the nationally-mandated Harmonised Guidelines at the local level comes down to the extent to which these guidelines are reflected in the building bye-laws issued by a municipal body.
Public spaces – not disabled-friendly at all
Safe, frictionless, and unhindered walking is an essential democratic right that any city should provide to its residents. But Bengaluru falls far behind in terms of providing easy mobility to PwDs.
Take, for instance, the footpaths in the city.
Bengaluru is characterised by uneven and encroaching walkways, missing ramps, lack of sensory direction, inaccessible pedestrian signals, and splintered pavement tiles. In addition, parking on the side of the road or on the pathways is common, and it presents a significant obstacle to walkers, particularly those with disabilities. The pathways are also in a poor state of repair.
The IT city appears to have turned a blind eye to a community whose public areas are unable to provide barrier-free access. Even though the Smart City project is in full gear, many roads and sidewalks remain inaccessible to the general population.
Paul Ramanathan, Director, SAMA Foundation, a non-profit working to empower PwDs, says, “Both of my legs are affected by disability so travelling anywhere alone on public transportation is impossible for me. If I decide today to take a bus, how will I get there? The footpath is not accessible for wheelchair users like me.”
The issues in transport infrastructure
For most PwDs, using public transport remains a challenge. Parinitha says “The buses in Bengaluru do not stop at the bus stops but farther away from it so people have to run to catch the bus. It’s a difficulty for even abled people so now imagine what people living with disabilities have to go through every time.” Parinitha has an upper limb difference where her right hand is underdeveloped. According to her disability certificate, issued by the Government of India, she is 74% disabled.
With regard to mobility and transport, and buses in particular, the Vidhi white paper draws attention to Rule 15 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules, 2017, which specifies the technical standards for testing and approval of new models of buses. The RPDWA places obligations on the specific government body to provide facilities for PwDs at bus stops, railways stations, and airports.
Only the most well-known metro stations provide some level of accessibility for PwDs. However, the washrooms in every metro station are too narrow for someone in a wheelchair to use.
Accessibility requirements for PwDs vary widely since they do not form a homogenous population. A well-built ramp may allow wheelchair users, the elderly, and those with mobility challenges to enter the building, but this does not make the structure entirely accessible. Are there accessible elevators and toilets available, as well as Braille signage, and sign language interpreters?
While the Karnataka government plans to transform Bengaluru into an international smart city, it is still a pipe dream for PwDs to be able to move about the city without encountering too many obstacles.
Small steps by civil society
To improve the accessibility issue, the SAMA foundation has been working with government schools in areas like Yelahanka, Jalahalli and other suburbs near Bengaluru in a School for Readiness program.
“The idea is to provide cost-effective travel solutions to children with disabilities. We pick up the children who live within a three km radius when they go to school and drop them off after school gets over. We still have a long way to go, to make schools inclusive and accessible for children with disabilities,” says Paul.
Vidya Ramasubban founded Kickstart Cabs to solve just this problem of safe and accessible transportation around Bengaluru. KickStart Cabs was established in 2013 with the intention of providing safe and uncomplicated transportation for senior citizens and those with disabilities, alike.
“We provide modified vehicles and we train our drivers to be sensitive to the passengers. Most people with disabilities do not require modified vehicles but they do require a sensitive, empathetic person who will drive them around and help them with any issue,” says Ramasubban.
What the law says
Vidhi’s white paper, among other issues, details the legal and policy frameworks, emphasises the need to adopt a Universal Design approach, and the lived experiences of PwDs in Bengaluru.
It addresses, among other issues, the legal framework for urban planning and accessibility to urban spaces; accessibility to physical environment (built infrastructure and public spaces); and accessibility to mobility and transportation.
The Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO), the technical wing of the MOHUA, has issued the Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation Guidelines, 2014 (URDPFI Guidelines). The Guidelines recognise that urban spaces and their infrastructure must be barrier-free and the planning process itself must be inclusive and participatory.
While the URDPFI Guidelines serve as a model for state governments, the town and country planning laws in India are required to be enacted by states. The Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961 (KTCPA) lays down the procedure for preparing a master plan and designates planning authorities within the state of who will be responsible for preparing the master plan for the planning area under their jurisdiction. The KTCPA designates the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) as the planning authority for Bengaluru.
Subsequent to planning of an urban area, the urban infrastructure itself must be accessible. The RPWDA prescribes the accessibility standards for various categories of urban spaces, i.e., built/physical environment, mobility and transportation, and ICTs.
The way forward
When several government agencies work in silos, it is difficult to get things done. Sensitisation, knowledge-sharing, and technical ability are all lacking in the public and private sectors, particularly at the local implementation level. Municipal architects, engineers, urban planners and managers, as well as those in charge of procurement, monitoring, and contract administration, lack adequate training.
Rama Chari, the Director of Diversity & Equal Opportunity Centre (DEOC), says, “We need a concerted effort to improve the issue of accessibility in Bengaluru. We need a separate department in the city which focuses on implementing the rights of the disabled people.”
While disability rights are protected by central law, their actualisation in terms of urban area accessibility falls within state and municipal legislation, which varies among jurisdictions.
While some of the regulations are published at the national level, it is up to state agencies, city governments, development agencies, and other urban local bodies to approve, apply, implement, and monitor the regulations.
“Monitoring the rights of the disabled people should be a priority of the government. Because otherwise, the RPWD 2016 Act is just a paper. The idea is to proactively monitor the public and the private sectors to ensure that they comply with the guidelines of the RPWD Act. The government should not wait for complaints from disabled people but rather have a separate department and employees for monitoring,” says Chari.