Saturday, 18 May 2013

Please help us step out of our homes

(Sorry for breaking the promised hiatus - which shall start from today, synchronously with my stay in California. This post began life as a post in Fcaebook, and I thought it needed to be slightly padded and promoted post in this blog.)

In this open letter I wish to make a desperate plea to the Hon. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, because it appears that reason and dialogue can get one nowhere with anything serious or major in this state if it does not have her blessings.

For quite some time now, many of us have been trying to talk to secretaries, officials and dignitaries at various levels, but none of those meetings has led to anything.

A few days ago, I had gone with four other friends - two of us in wheelchairs, and one on crutches - to talk to people in the transport ministry of TN regarding the accessibility standards of their public buses. Vaishnavi, one of the two non-disabled people in our party, started off the discussions with this brilliant salvo to the five or six transport officials we were engaging in the discussion:

I want to ask, of each of you, how many people with disabilities you have known in your schools/colleges? and the response from ALL concerned was ZERO.

And Vaishnavi continued: "at a conservative estimate, 1% of the Indian
population has some manner of disability; have you paused to think why they were not in your schools? Or that the obvious reason staring you in the face is that they have no choice, in view of our public transport system, but to sit at home?"

I have been with Vaishnavi one hot afternoon trying to get some info regarding the Chennai Metro Rail System. We have written subsequent email requests to the concerned secretaries, but there has been no response as yet, from anyone!

At our recent visit to Pallavan House, we were trying to get data on the accessibility of their buses, of the low or semi-low floor buses, the ordering of minibuses that is being considered, and the ‘kneeling varieties’ which are supposed to lower a platform which a wheel-chair user can, in principle, board the buses. We also noticed that the only low-floor buses that have been commissioned are all of the ‘luxury’ and ‘AC’ variety. When asked why this was so, we were told that the bus manufacturers had probably tried to sell off the stock they already had.

One of the officers then kindly offered to let us go down to the depot next door and have a look at such accessible buses as were on hand and could be viewed. In the first `kneeling kind' they had, there was a not very wide metal ranp that was unfolded from inside the bus and swung outside to touch the ground. This ramp was so narrow and so steep that my friend Rajiv could get into the bus on his manual wheelchair only after my driver Sekar pushed him up the ramp; and my motorised wheelchair simply refused to climb the slope. 
Sudha, Rajiv and Sekar

Meenakshi and helper

Then we were shown another bus of a local design which was as much of a non-starter. Meenakshi could get onto the movable lift only with a helper pulling her chair in after him; and after that, they were too heavy for the lift to take them both up.  No wonder we have all been constantly requesting/demanding that there is always an accessibility expert on all decision making bodies! (Nothing for us, without us?)

I told my friends that a head honcho in Ashok Leylands had been a school-mate and friend of my brother who passed away just three months ago; and that I would write to him in the hope that he may remember me (we all went by school bus from the same bus stop for a year), and hope that the memory of my brother might be enough emotional blackmail to make him respond to my query regarding the possible justification for completely denying the disabled proletariat the ability to travel by the cheapest form of public transport. I did write such a letter and the response thus far has been a deathly silence.

Sometimes I think we are romantic thick-headed optimists hoping to find the chink in this wall of callous indifference. How long can we keep banging our heads against the unyielding wall of a bureaucracy, where one periodically sees concern and the desire to help, but everybody but Amma seems to be impotent to take major decisions on the spot?

In conclusion, I ask you: what, in the perception of the Chief Minister of this state, is more important: doing something about the issues discussed above, or building a `Mother Tamil' analogue of the Statue of Liberty at a mind-blowing 100 crore rupees - which to the non-Indian mind is approximately a staggering 2,00,00,000 USD? 

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