Indian Railways and the Differently Abled: Concessions Yes, But What About Facilities?
It has been around two years since the Indian Railways came up with the idea of introducing I-cards for differently abled persons. This card helps persons with disabilities in availing ticket concessions. The idea was unique, forward looking and sensitive to the needs of persons with disabilities. This is because this I-card has a unique code for each person who avails this card. Using this code, a differently abled person could book his/her ticket online through IRCTC website without having to go to the railway reservation counter.
This provided a much needed relief to almost 80 million differently abled population of the country. But here is the problem in its implementation. Firstly, there are only 4 seats reserved for persons with disabilities in the sleeper class which has around 700 seats in total, which means not even 1% of the seat is reserved. The actual demands for the seats are much more, especially at the time of summer vacations and festivals.
Secondly, if someone tries to book a ticket for AC class from the IRCTC website, it’s always shown ‘Not Available’. Even if one tries to book an AC ticket four months before (120 days), still the website shows ‘no seats available’. Now, this is peculiar because one can otherwise get his/her ticket from any class easily if one is booking his/her ticket four months in advance without concession.
But, when differently abled people or their escorts go to railway reservation counter to book tickets in AC class, they find that tickets are ‘available’ there, but not available online. So, the question is that whether the I-cards that were issued to make life easier for differently abled people making life any easier for them, when they still have to go to reservation counters to book their tickets? The intention behind introducing the I-cards was to lessen the dependency of differently abled people on their family members and thereby empowering them simultaneously.
But this problem takes them ‘back to square one’. They have to depend on someone to get their tickets done from the reservation counter in order to avail the concession. The interesting thing about concession in rail tickets is that the same concession is given to the person who is escorting a differently abled person in their travel. For e.g. If a differently abled person is travelling with an escort in the sleeper class, both of them would get 75% concession on their tickets, which is a big financial relief to both of them.
The intent behind extending the concession to the escorts was to incentivize them in order to make them travel with a differently abled person. Mostly, the escorts are family members of persons with disabilities. Apart from that, the other problem lies in the less concession rates in AC class tickets and concession given in trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi.
While 75% concession is given on second class, sleeper class and AC-3 tickets, only 50% concession is given in AC-2 and AC-1 tickets. The concession rate decreases abysmally in Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains, where concession is given only on AC-3 and AC chair car tickets and concession given is abysmally low at a meagre 25%. Considering the direct linkage between disability and poverty as per the data given by World Bank and most of the globally renowned institutions working on disability, a very miniscule differently abled population would be able to avail a ticket in Rajdhani or Shatabdi trains where the average cost of a ticket is around thousand rupees.
Even after getting 25% concession, the price of a ticket is just too high for persons with disabilities. Does the policy makers unaware of this linkage between poverty and disability or do they want differently abled people to not travel in Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains and travel only in sleeper class, whose ticket can be easily booked online?
The final and the most compelling issue is the challenge faced by persons with disabilities while travelling. In many long distance trains, there is a separate rail coach only for differently abled people. This coach is generally put just behind the engine of the train. Firstly, this separate coach seems like a measure to exclude disabled passengers with the mainstream. Secondly, since the coach is far from the middle of the railway platform, generally where the shaded area is under which all the facilities like food, water, chair, fans are available. This makes life quite difficult for them. They have to cross almost 300-500 metres to reach their coaches and near these coaches, no facilities are available, as mentioned above. Sometimes there are no platforms available where these coaches are positioned, this happens mostly in small town stations.
Ideally, these separate coaches (if it all) should be attached at the middle of the train, so that differently abled passengers’ journey could be made easier and less physically exhilarating. To sum up, IRCTC website should be made more disabled friendly, concession rates in both express and Rajdhani/Shatabdi trains should be increased and mostly importantly, the concept of separate coaches for differently abled people should be done away with and if not, their coaches should be positioned where all essential things are made easily accessible to them. Then only, India would become ‘Accessible India’.