Well Begun But Little Done
Last month, on 15th of July, I wrote a piece in this very publication outlining the problems faced by persons with disabilities while booking a ticket in the Indian railways. Along with that, I mentioned the concessions given by Ministry of Railways to the differently abled people. These concessions are mainly confined to the concessions in ticket fare and providing ramps and lifts to make the railway stations disabled friendly in big cities.
A week after my article got published; Ministry of Railways took a ‘welcome step’ and came out with an order of “Earmarking of reservation quota for physically handicapped persons in 3AC classes”. The order stated that from now on, a reservation quota of two berths in 3AC class would be earmarked for person with disabilities and two berths for the escorts of persons with disabilities. Earlier, this provision was only limited to the sleeper class. There was a long standing demand for extending this provision to AC classes as well.
Well, the government has finally listened to this demand, but a lot of demands are yet to be fulfilled. Let’s look at them one by one. Firstly, “Earmarking of reservation quota for physically handicapped persons” should have been extended for all classes in all the trains including Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Jan Shatabdi and Duronto trains. This is because a differently abled person might want to travel in AC-1, AC-2 of long distance trains which includes trains like Rajdhani express as well.
The idea behind the unique Identity card issued by Ministry of Railways for persons with disabilities was to make their life easier by letting them book their rail tickets online. Now, lets come to second point. Since, the ministry has extended the reservation quota to just 3AC class, it brings out a question that whether the government extended the quota just to 3AC class from sleeper class because both persons with disabilities are offered maximum concession of 75% in both the classes? 3/4rth concession in the ticket fare, makes these tickets affordable to persons with disabilities and their escorts- who also get 75% concessions in their tickets.
In many cases, persons with disabilities have to rely on their escorts to travel in trains and therefore need to pay up for the tickets both themselves and their escorts, because otherwise escorts wouldn’t be willing to escort them. This increases the financial burden of a differently abled person because he/she has to pay for two persons fare. For e.g. If after getting 75% concession in an 3AC ticket costs a person Rs250, then the person has to buy another ticket of same amount, making the total ticket cost Rs500.
As I mentioned in my last article, Disability and poverty are inter-related concepts and has been recognized so by renowned global institutions such as UN, World Bank etc, even a ticket fare of Rs. 500 puts a lot of burden on their pockets.
Now, coming back to the point, Ministry of Railways should give concessions upto 75% in all the classes and all the trains, bar none. This would be a very inclusive measure for the 80 million disabled populations in India. Now, an argument can be thrown that this would give a lot of burden on the Indian Railways. But, counter to this would be that, firstly only 4 seats were allotted for persons with disabilities in an entire train which has around 1300 seats in a long distance train.
Four out of 1300 is a miniscule number, and many a times even these 4 seats are not filled. Secondly, 4 is really a miniscule number. Out of 720 sleeper class seats, only 4 were reserved for persons with disabilities. The number of seats should be increased. In every class, atleast 3% of seats needs to be reserved for persons with disabilities. The question is not just limited to reservation of seats for persons with disabilities but how the quota allocation is done.
Till now, in most of the long distance trains, 4 seats out of 720 sleeper class seats were reserved for differently abled people. But differently abled people didn’t get to sit among any of these 720 passengers. For them, a special coach is attached with only 4 berths and this coach is exclusive to person with disabilities. Rather than being an inclusive measure, this has segregated the persons with disabilities from the mainstream.
Train journeys are not just about travelling from point A to point B, it is about intermingling with the society itself, with people whom you have never met and would never meet again in almost all the cases. To keep persons with disabilities out of this social process is like discrimination. Now, the argument given for these special coaches, which by the way, are attached just behind the train’s engine, far away from the middle of the platform where one can get all kinds of necessary things like food , water etc; is that these coaches are specially designed and are wheel chair friendly and therefore these coaches are necessary.
Firstly, the policy makers need to understand the basic fact that disability is not a ‘HOMOGENOUS’ concept, there are multiple types of disability and disability where wheel chair is required is just one of them. So, there is no need to put all people with other kinds of disability in these coaches. Secondly, why not take a step further and make all the coaches in a train ‘Disabled friendly’? Yes, that would cost the railways a fair amount, but these costs are necessary to be incurred in order to include persons with disabilities in the mainstream society.
Secondly, this step would help ‘senior citizens’ too because many of them face some level of inability, if not, disability. Just because they don’t book their tickets under PH (Physically Handicapped) category, doesn’t mean that they don’t face the same problem as differently abled people. Also, many a times persons with disabilities travel in the normal coaches because the few seats reserved for them are not available. This step would be truly remarkable if implemented, would help millions of people. That would be a real step towards the ‘Accessible India’ campaign.
To sum up, just accessibility is not enough; inclusivity along with accessibility is what is desired here. The ministry’s step is welcome, but a lot of ground needs to be covered.