Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Master's Voice

Last evening was an absolute revelation. It was almost like I was being treated to a most impressive personality saying the exact things I have been wanting to hear. The occasion was a lecture organised by the ITDP (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy) at the Central Lecture Theatre of the IIT (Madras). I had received an email from one of my friends saying this was not to be missed - as the exuberant championing by the speaker of a cause that was close to both our hearts was a joy to behold. The space near the venue was also supposed to hold a sort of display of the projects currently being worked on by ITDP. The lecture was supposed to be from 6 to 8 in the evening, so I went there at 5.30 to give myself enough time to lap it all up. ITDP, along with like-minded partners (Chennai City Connect, many senior people in the Chennai Corporation who had been shown the light and were glad to participate, etc.), has taken on the task of making large parts, if not eventually all, of Chennai accessible to pedestrians and cyclists (and wheel-chair users!); and the `display' showed their amazingly transformed visions of T.Nagar, parts of Egmore and Mylapore.

Finally around 6.30, we were all told the lecture was going to begin, and we trooped in to `CLT'. The proceedings were flagged off by the Regional Director (India) of ITDP, a young woman, who introduced the speaker (between efforts to set right the erratic computer projection system). The speaker was Enrique Penalosa, the current Director of the Board of Directors of ITDP. (He had earlier served terms as President of ITDP, as well as Mayor of Bogota, Colombia.) The woman (Shreya) who introduced him, described him as the spirit of ITDP who inspired all of them.

The moment the man came to the poodium, it was clear why she said what she did. He positively bubbled with his fervour and enthusiastic espousal of the theme of how we ourselves should claim our own cities, and work towards ensuring that our city spaces were shared democratically. The cyclist and pedestrian have as much right to the city roads as the automobile driver. He gave chilling statistics of how many people/children had been killed by automobiles within the first 25 years of their entry on the American landscape. He pointed out that 40 years from now, Chennai's population would be 400% of what it is today. Realising that Bogota was headed the same way as Chennai is today, he used his good offices as Mayor to introduce a Bus-based rapid transport system by reserving a wide central strip of city roads solely for the use of these buses. So you saw traffic in the extreme lanes resembling giant parking lots while the central lane saw buses whizzing by compltely unfettered. As he rightly points out: A bus carrying 100 passengers must have as much room as a 100 Mercedes Benzes with one passenger each!

He also correctly pointed out that the most favoured cities were the ones which had the most public spaces, parks and pedestrian spaces to offer, and which had attractive pedestrian facilities near their water bodies. The proliferation of malls is because they are the only places where there are wide walking spaces for people  - with baby strollers or wheel-chairs!. He showed such public open air spaces in Copenhagen, Paris and New York (where you could enjoy the distinguishing special features of these cities - as against the universally isomorphic copies of Reeboks showrooms). He showed photographs of  areas which had once been infested and controlled by drug dealers/users in Bogota - before and after he had transformed them to beautiful pedestrian-friendly places. What you need, first and foremost, are good, wide and usable pavements. These words were music to my ears. It felt like a parched throat being offered the most delicious nectar. When can my lip taste  it?

Finally, a sour note to end this `feel-good' story. The projection of the carefully prepared presentation was visible for only about 25% of the duration of his talk. The `systems people' kept walking up and down with no tangible results. If we were able to see the 25% that we did, it was because poor Shreya spent the entire evening holding the two sides of a connection precariously held together by a piece of masking tape which is at least a few years old, by the sight of it. That this should happen in `the great Indian Institute of Technology' - pretty much like the music system at the Music Academy, one of the prime auditoria used in Chennai's world-famous music season each winter, would emit one of those ear-splitting shrieks peiodically - was embarrassing and infuriating. As my friend Raj (who initially alerted me of Penalosa's lecture, and about whom I wrote in the post `A glimmer of hope' in this blog) said at the end of the talk yesterday, we should be ashamed of ourselves!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Black vs. disabled

It is perhaps not surprising that there are so many parallels between the issues that PwD face in India and the consequent activism they have to put in, on the one hand, and the the trials and tribulations that black American people were subjected to, on the other.

I will deliberately call them black, and not  African, American because the latter terminology stresses the point that this group of people were brought in as slaves from Africa (and hence must learn to settle for less), rather than that these people are just as American today as apple pie and baseball (remember Hank Aaron?), while it is the colour of their skin which singles them out for the issues they face and have to battle. Just as I will refer to PwD (people with disability) rather than `the differently abled', as the latter phrase stresses that this set of people are different from the run-of-the-mill citizen, while it is the existence of a disability that sets them apart from their physically perfect countrymen who sometimes perpetrate unthinkable horrors on their fellow-man/woman.

It was not long ago that black people were not allowed to eat in restaurants or use public toilets. This was because of racist ideology. Today, people like me are prevented from entering restaurants or using public toilets because of the NON-universal design that mandates climbing some steps to enter the reataurant and inaccessibility of toilets to wheelchair users.

Not long ago, black people were not allowd to sit anywhere but the rear of buses. Today, we can't even enter buses because of the wretched steps.

But there are differences. Black people had a leader `who had a dream', behind whom his people rose as one to make his dream their reality. To the extent that they have a black President of the US today, who came into power following resounding support from the younger and less reactionary American (black, white, yellow or brown) because they wanted to believe him when he said `Yes we can' accomplish things that were unthinkable in the time of his grandmother.

We, unfortuntely, have not had our Martin Luther King Jr. to lead us out of our dark times, let alone even think of having anything remotely akin to our Barack Obama. This has not been for want of trying. There have been exmplary models of PwD showing the world they can do anything the `ordinarily abled' can do, as well or better. We have had no dearth of role-models - like Rahul Cherian, Satendra Singh and Madhavi Latha (who incidentally writes an eye-opening blog called `Yes, we too can'). But we need our MLK to garner political clout , as that seems the only way to achieve anything in our country which has rapists and murderers among people in political power, while we are completely impotent to enforce something that `became a law' almost 20 years ago!

In order to even get to talk to one of the senior people in government circles, we always have to go through an insensitive security force which creates problems to even permit our vehicles to go past the ever-present yellow police baricades to drop us close to the desired building, before we have to climb the omnipresent steps before even entering the building! I always keep asking if they cannot come once for a meeting in an accessible place - so they understand what we are talking about, see what universal design  and a barrier-free environment look like, and further realise that such places do and can exist - albeit in in isolated pockets (oases) - in Indian cities. I only receive astonished glares at my gall at suggesting that the great man/woman come to visit mere commoners!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A glimmer of hope?

A couple of days ago, a bunch of our group (DRA) met with some members of an organisation called Chennai City Connect. The agenda was to discuss a programme that they were undertaking to re-design the city roads so they have wide pavements which would be accessible to all users, the elderly, pregnant mothers, children, wheel-chair users,.... It was a wonderful meeting for three reasons:

(i) It was hosted most charmingly in the office of Smita at Vidya Sagar, where we had a small but serious group of people wanting to do something about the grim reality of insensitivity outside the confines of rare oases such as Vidya Sagar.

(ii) The Director of Vidya Sagar came into the office at some point, fussed about our levels of comfort and protection we might need againsat the ubiquitous mosquitoes, and came and vcoluntarily joined our discussion. It felt a little like having your mother around to make sure things were just right.

(iii) And last but not least was the contagious positivity and optimism of Raj Cherubal (to meet with whom this meeting had been fixed). By the time we dispersed that evening, I was convinced that within a month, there would be several roads in Chennai which would look like what is proposed in, and that it was simply a matter of time before this transformation was complete! (The last time I saw such positivity was when Bhargav Sundaram convinced me several years ago that buying a motorised wheelchair (rather than painfully stumbling along with a crutch) would liberate and empower me and should not be viewed as accepting defeat. I followed his advice and have never regretted it.)

What was energising about Raj's optimism was that almost the entire Chennai City Corporation seemed to be sold on the need to work towards this transformation of the city! To see what I mean, take a look at this (in which photograph Raj may be seen second from the right). He explained this trip where he took all these Government officials on a 5 1/2 hour jaunt involving crossing the crowded Poonamallee High Road to cross from Central Station to Park station, taking an electric train to some point, then switching over to MRTS, buyimg train tickets, traveling across town to Thiruvanmiyur, going up, across and down the almost sadistically constructed pedestrian over bridges across OMR, taking a bus to Guindy Station, taking a train from Guindy to the airport, etc. Apparently, none of the Govt. officials objectecd to this exercise, but were, on the contrary, happy to become aware of what most Chennai residents faced.

And within a couple of days of our meeting at Vidya Sagar, he had already spoken to the Chennai Corporation Commissioner about the discussions we had all had at Vidya Sagar, and sent me an email with contact details of how I could fix up a meeting between members of DRA and the Commissioner to try and carry forward some of our common ambitions on this much wanted exercise of rendering Chennai accessible to People with Disabilities.

Today, I am more positive about the possibility of seeing an  accessible Chennai in my life-time. Thanks Raj! May more of your tribe thrive and make a reality of the hopes and dreams of millions of disabled people.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A change of pace

As a tension releasing change of tone, I thought I would not write on the grim realities of getting government officials to do something to alleviate the lot of PwD. Instead, I shall talk of something refreshingly positive.

This whole series of events started with a not very encouraging visit that some of our group (we call ourselves `Disability Rights Alliance') made to the Pallavan House - which visit I chronicled in an earlier post in this blog. As mentioned in this post, we were told that part of the reason for buses not being more accessible was such considerations of the of bus mnufacturers as a desire to get rid of unsold stock. As also mentioned in the above-mentioned post, I offered to help set up a meeting with a senior executive of Ashok Leylands who had been a friend of one of my brothers in school. So I dashed off an email to Mr. Seshasayee (the senior executive mentioned earlier). As a result of our individual itineraries this summer, we could not manage to find a common time to meet until a few months later.

That particular meeting took place in the head office of AL located not far from Raj Bhavan in Chennai. As it turned out, he wrote saying he was officially no longer as closely related to their buses as before, and that he would arrange for my group to meet the concerned person. It was pouring cats and dogs that morning and I had taken care to leave sufficiently early. I was waiting in their (very accessible) lobby, waiting for two of my friends to also come. As luck would have it, Seshasyee walked in just as I was waiting in the lobby. He greeted me warmly and said he would try and make it a point to at least briefly drop in on our meeting.

When Vaishnavi and Amba came along and we went up, we were received most cordially by Mr. Saharia (Exec. Dir. Mkting at AL) and Mr. Rajesh (in charge of the buses there). They answered many of our questions regarding `low-floor' buses, thier economic feasibility, etc. When we left after a very cordially conducted meeting of a few hours, Mr.  Rajesh promised to send us pertinent literature as well as offered to take us to their Technical Centre a few miles from the city where we could examine things first-hand. As our meeting was nearing its end, they made a call to Seshasayee to inform him as such (since he had apparently asked them to do so). And sure enough, he came down, quickly got the gist of what had transpired thus far, and made some really innovative suggestions, promised to give any other help we may desire, and then dashed off to other needs clamouring for his attention.

A few days later, Mr. Rajesh was true to his word and sent the material we had asked for. I, in turn, asked him when we could go check out their Technical Centre and he put the ball back in my court by asking me when we would like to go. I asked for some time to contact our (scattered) DRA team and get individual responses as to a suitable time.  When we finally got our act together and informed the AL people of the dates suitable for us, he sensibly asked me how many people would go on this trip. Several phone calls and e-mails later, it was decided that they would arrange suitable modes of transportation to transport our team of 5-8 people plus 3-4 wheel-chairs.

They sent their `fun-bus' (along with an air-conditioned car, which was not really needed and sent back) to collect our team from Vidya Sagar at 9 am on the agreed date. I got to Vidya Sagar at 8.45, while the bus came 5 minutes later. The bus had a sort of lift which a very polite and friendly bus-driver operated, and all present, with some four different kinds of wheel-chairs, got into the bus without any mishap. I learnt from one of my colleagues, on the long bus-ride, that Ashok Leylands apparently mkes its bus available for such usage to anybody who asks for it provided only that they pay the driver (what Indians call his `bata' or) per diem expenses).

When we finally got to our destination, we were spared the high security regimen that has to be undergone by anyone entering the premises, and were driven to where we could access the building via the ramps that are as ubiquitous in the AL buildings we saw as life-size  pictures of Mahendra Singh Dhoni (presumaably their brand ambassador), both of which did much to heighten the general feeling of being welcome. To top it off, there were displays on monitors `welcoming Mr. Sunder and his team'. And not only did they make various presentations as well as take us down to where they had their later models of `kneeling buses' etc., they even served all of us lunch in a special room of their canteen, during which our discussions continued and the senior officers present made promises to implement various suggestions we had made regarding the gradient of the ramps in their buses, etc.

At the end of the day, one had a satisfactory feeling of having seen genuine corporate social responsibility in action!