Friday, 5 April 2013

A day in the life of a freedom fighter

I had initially used `disability activist' in the title, but as the late lamented Rahul Cherian taught me, `we are not activists; we are from the land of Mahatma Gandhi, and are freedom fighters demanding what is our right'!

Yesterday was the second opportunity I had to see the kind of hard work put in day after day by people committed to the cause of bettering the lot of people with disabilities (PWD). The first time was when Vaishnavi dragged me out at 3 pm some time back to go and do a recce of the metro station coming up near the giant bus terminus at CMBT whose wonderful amenities the papers had been carrying glorious reports about. After muscling our way, past the various hurdles thrown our way, in Vaishnavi's inimical bulldozing fashion to get to the site where these wonderful amenities were coming up, what I finally got to see was a place which I could reach only because my driver Sekar – who plays an admirable and uncomplaining Sancho Panza when I go off on one such quixotic joust of mine – had driven us as close as we could get, and had then pushed my wheelchair on most unfriendly terrain, where there were large puddles of water, and a thin plank of wood putting up a poor attempt at pretending to be a ramp of sorts: I say ` what I got to see'  because Vaishnavi could and did walk up some stairs to see the concourse level)

After this mini-adventure, emails were sent off to the relevant authority regarding the need to ensure accessibility of the metro system to the PWDs who are also citizens of this megapolis which is fast becoming unusable to all those who do not whizz around in their own cars. Of course there has been no response, but the Vaishnavis of the world march on doggedly with fierce optimism, which I'm sure I could not summon the strength (of body or character) to.

Recently, Smitha of the legal unit of Vidya Sagar (the erstwhile wing, in Chennai, of the Spastic Society of India) had been on a mission to get an appointment to meet the Transport Minister of TN to discuss accessibility features of some 100 mini-buses which had been announced to be commissioned for public transport. Again the idea was to equip the buses properly right at the outset rather than having to `retro-fit' and make costly and difficult alterations to an originally faulty design, which can be avoided by already involving PWDs in the design stage itself. She had been constantly contacting the PRO who kept postponing the setting up of an appointment with the Minister. Finally she sent an email saying After repeated attempts for past 1 month, we are successful in getting the consent of the office of the Transport Minister, Govt of Tamil Nadu on 1st April (coming monday), at 3 pm at the secretariet with respect to the accessibility aspect of upcoming minibuses in Chennai.

It so happens that on this same day, many groups of `freedom fighters' had planned a dharna regarding the various statutes in our law books which were still only `on paper' and no serious effort had been put into implementing these statutes after many years. So a small group of about six of us assembled at the gates of the secretariat only to be informed around 3.30 that the Hon. Minister had gone for lunch and that we should call back in 1o minutes. Meanwhile, we had to somehow make a successful entry into the premises of the Secretariat.

That is when Vaishnavi appeared like an Achilles armed for battle, and she breezed through the blockades in her fashion to convince the cops at the gate to let us in despite the technicality that there were seven of us, while prior permission had been granted only for four people. She explained to them that as there were several steps between us and the minister, people on wheelchairs would need the help of at least a couple of semi-able-bodied people to help them negotiate the hurdles. Finally, around 4 pm, we managed to get our cars to reasonable proximity to the entrance close to the elevators which would take us to El Dorado where we could communicate with the Hon. Minister. Some six times we were given contrary instructions on the route to the bottom of the rainbow.

Finally, we went past a long corridor which ended in a flight of several steps, of which we could see at least about 17! Somebody came and asked us to wait while they could see what could be done. After about ten minutes of waiting there – just enough for Vaishnavi to take Smitha's wheel-chair to the place whence we had entered the building, so she could help bring one of our troupe who did not have a wheel-chair, but for whom the walk would have been more than a mite long. And then there was a sudden burst of activity as a cascade of people came down the steps, and in the midst of a sea of flunkeys – several of whom asked us to clear the way by moving our wheelchairs which were cluttering up the way - came the Minister all in white, quite by accident and apparently clueless as to why we were all cluttering up the corridors, until Smitha explained the reason for our presence in chaste Tamil and in a much more calm tenor of voice than I could have managed after an afternoon of having been treated like dumb animals. At the end of it all, the great man first suggested that two of us who could come up to his office should do so at a suitable time to voice our grievances. Upon which he was told very sweetly by Smitha that we all represented the interests of different groups and would like to be heard, and was it impossible for him to fix a meeting in a ground floor room which we could all attend ? And he magnanimously replied that he would get his PA to take down the contact numbers of `our leaders', who would be summoned anon to a meeting.

Who would like to take a bet on:

  1. where, between zer0 and infinity, this anon would be? and
  2. how sympathetic or meaningful a response could one hope for then?

There was an amazing feeling of deja vu – like playing a supporting role in the Wizard of Oz!

And the amazing thing was that just when I was going to throw up on the way out, at the (in)sensitivity I had witnessed all afternoon, I learnt that at least two of the women in our troupe, who always had the most pleasant countenance throughout this ordeal we'd been through, were not going back to a sane and comfortable home like me, but were going back to rejoin the dharna they had been at until they came to lend their moral support here.

And thus the life of our freedom fighters goes on..... ad nauseum!

Let me conclude this long tirade with some lines that Henry David Thoreau could have written for these amazing women I had spent the afternoon with:

If a man loses pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music which he hears,
however measured, or far away.

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