Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Madly rushing to the only possible conclusion with a short-sighted and one-track mind

Some months ago, I was led to believe that the Corporation of Chennai was being sensible and open-minded to the dream of restoring public spaces to the people and not sacrificing them at the altar of the automobile. I had been to a consultation involving the Commissioner of Chennai Corporation and organisations like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Chennai City Connect Foundaion (CCCF), where an entire day was spent by some six groups of ten people each, charting out possible streets which could accommodate bicycle lanes, and such notions unimaginable in Indian cities. Even last week, Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect was proudly telling me Chennai was becoming the cynosure of all eyes, with such projects as reclaiming pavements in Besant Nagar, Pantheon Road, etc., and the great plans in store for rendering large parts of Mylapore and T. Nagar `for pedestrians only'!

Imagine my shock when I learnt there was going to be a meeting between Chennai Corporation officials and residents of Mandaiveli to discuss plans for the proposed grade separators in Mandaiveli and three other places, one of which is to be at an intersection used every day by many of my friends on their way to and from work. So I sounded the alarm to our friends that some of us should go to this meeting to put across our point of view. As it turned out, only three of us had planned to meet there, and the omens on the way did not augur well. Firstly, on the way to the hall where this meeting had been announced, we had to pass SIET road, one of the roads where the pavements had allegedly been `reclaimed' and what I saw was this:

Bikes claiming the pavements back!

When we got to the hall, where I had insisted on taking my wheelchair if at least to make a statement, what met me was:

The inevitable step, without even an apology for a ramp

I soldiered on till the step, and `volunteered' a couple of people there to help carry the wheelchair up the inevitable single step. Although I got there only half hour after the stated starting time, it was only after I had commandeered a corner at the front of the hall that the dignitaries trooped in and the show got on the road. The presentation started with a descriptions of the four roads coming into the Mandaiveli intersection under discussion. We were provided with statistics of how many cars went from any one of those roads to any other in a specified interval of time, and how they were planning an overbridge from one of the four roads to another, and how this would make it possible for so many more cars to traverse the intersection in the same interval of time. I kept tying to raise my hand to ask what the statistics for the pedestrians were, and if it was assumed to be obvious that enabling more cars to travel faster was the only way to go forward. But of course, my hand was never acknowledged and one had to wait until a boring littany of numbers regarding the widening of roads had to be gone through, which nobody would have remembered a few minutes later, and the the floor was open for questions only after the presentation was over. Immediately, some gentleman started shooting off his questions before I could hope for a kindly soul to recognise my raised hand. Thereupon, the Mayor of Chennai Corporation came down from the dais and came down to speak to this gent, crossing me on his way, followed by a group of followers, so I had to strain to even see the Mayor's back. The gentleman who had made the presentation was next to me and I pleaded with him to give me a chance to ask a question. After a few minutes, he gave me a cordless mike so I could chirp in when there was a lull in the dialogues the Mayor was being engaged in by several people. When my chance came, I told the Mayor I had been waiting a long time to ask some questions, and he very magnanimously asked me to `pray proceed'. I said that we had only heard about cars, and I wanted to know how people like me or elderly people would get to cross the newly constructed roads whose purpose seemed to be to ensure a constant free flow of traffic; he turned to one of his flunkies and said `there are indications of that in our maps, no?'. The flunky said yes, the mike was taken away from me, and I realised there was litle point in our staying any longer and came out with a sick feeling in my stomach. Sure enough, today's newpapers covered the `event' and said that decisions had been finalised by the Corporation on the grade separators in the four places mentioned earlier.

The short-sightedness mentioned in the title refers to the comment in the presentation that when this overbridge had come up, we would have no problems of traffic congestion for the next twenty years. Would more overbridges come up after twenty years, then?

The one-track mind refers to the thinking that the only way forward is to have more and more cars traveling faster and faster? No one seems to even consider the fact that the number of road traffic accidents per year have been steadily increasing every year at a staggering rate, and with it the number of fatalities, a very high percentage of which consists of elderly pedestrians. This model of `growth' will only result in confining the aged and the people with disabilities to the four walls of their homes.

The only possible conclusion I am talking about is total stagnation - with nobody getting from anywhere to anywhere else - cos we'll soon run out of gasoline to run our cars, and we would have backed ourselves into a corner due to not having improved our public transport.

And here is something else that really gets my goat. I received email about how in order to prevent our motor-cyclists parking their vehicles in the way, the Bombay Metro has started putting up bollards all over the place, thereby enacting a case of throwing out your wheel-chair-users along with the motor-cycles! See this link if you want to get really dejected/furious. And as icing on the cake, here are some (bad) photographs I took of motorcyclists whizzing along on the pavement of Gandhi Mantapam Road:

Where does one walk? 

Fortunately, I will not have to live in this country forty years from now, but heaven help our children!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Please keep my money, Mr. Banker!

I was at a meeting yesterday with some friends from our `Disability Rights Alliance' , the aim of the meeting being to try and draw up a list of some `reasonable, minimal and non-negotiable' requirements to be put up by two of us who will be going to Delhi this week-end to be part of a `consultation with the powers that be' - with our `begging bowl' to say `pretty please, would you be so kind as to satisfy these greedy wants of ours'.

The reader should know the background, where many perfectly intelligent and capable people are being denied, only because they have cerebral palsy or some psycho-social disorder, the right to own and maintain a bank account! Here is my bid to itemise some of these demands. You would think any self-respecting democratically run country - leave alone the largest one in the world - would consider these to be self-evident necessities!

A note on some acronyms used: (i) PWD = person(s) with disability; (ii) P without D = the other kind, for whom the banks seem to work!)

  1. All banks should, when necessary, accept a thumbprint of a person in lieu of a signature. (If this can be done for any one human being (e.g., illiterate, or aged and unable to sign), there can be no justification for not doing this for every person – with or without disability. Any bank that does so should be liable to a fine/penalty, and should recompense the person so discriminated against.
  2. All bank personnel should undergo a course of sensitisation where they learn the do's and don't's of dealing with PWD.
  3. Every bank shall have an accessibility officer to identify potential problems of, maintain statistics regarding, and facilitate communication with and transactions by persons with disabilities.
  4. ATMs should be usable by people with all manners of disability (be it visibility, auditory, speech or locomotor impairments). A third of the branches of each bank in each town should have a drive-in ATM.
  5. In cases where some PWD are constrained to have an account jointly with a guardian, all transactions in that account must be immediately intimated to both account holders.
  6. Appropriate safe-guards must be built into the mechanisms by which guardians are assigned to PWD who may be deemed to need them.
  7. Banks should initiate drives to get PWD among their clientele, maintain statistics of the PWD among their clientele, and disincntives should be in place to discourage banks where the percentage of PWD among all clients varies from the mean beyond statistically acceptable standards.
  8. ATMs should not ask clients for their phone numbers (simply because they may not have one or be deaf!) It should be possible to operate an ATM purely on the basis of the thumb-prints of the user.
  9. Any Bank refusing to let a PWD open an account must be severely and sternly reprimanded by the RBI and appropriate penalty should be levied. The same holds for any bank found using different criteria for the same service to PWD and P without D.
  10. A master circular laying out all these considerations concerning PWD should be distributed and prominently displayed in all Banks.
  11. The absurd practise of people with certain kinds of disability needing to obtain a certificate that `they do not need a guardian' should immediately be done away with. Unlike other citizens of the land, are PWD guilty until proven innocent?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Dear Mr. President, please do not make vacuous statements

Our politicins are masters of giving speeches where they seem to promise all
sorts of good things, when in fact they have carefully chosen their words so
they cannot later be faulted for not having fulfilled their promise.

Our president, in a recent address, mentioned `specially abled' people for
the first time. Great progress, you would think; but sift through his three
sentences with a toothcomb:

The welfare and rehabilitation of specially - abled people is integral to my government's vision of a caring society.

Hold your horses, Pranab-da! I need no rehabilitation from you or anybody. I don't want your caring society's offer to carry me up three steps when you have not had the forethought to instal a ramp when you have steps. I do not need your sympathy and caring; I want to be able to participate in any walk of life that you are able to.

It will take steps to provide dignity of life to them by facilitating their participation in all walks of life. 

Mention ten, or even just three, specific steps your government will take to `provide dignity of life' to me. Will you make it possible for me to get out of my house on my wheelchair, get down from the pavement to the road, and cross the road? Will you make it possible for me to take a bus or train or metro? Will you make it possible for me to exercise my franchise at the next elections? And will I be able to do all these three things by myslf without having to have somebody to help me achieve each of these mind-boggling and death-defying feats?

Steps will be taken to identify their special needs and to provide institutional care to them.

And what is this new terminology `special needs'? You and our prime minister need spectacles to read anything, while I do not need any such aids to read. I need a wheelchair to move around while you are able to walk. Is your need special or is mine special? Maybe one is `more special' than the other? I notice you are planning to have special institutions to dish out the special needs for the specially abled. I just hope these are not the kind of institution where people with certain kinds of special needs are kept tied up in chains and possibly get charred to death when thee is a fire in their `special institution'.

India is supposd to be a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. (Please note the internationally accepted terminology: I am not a disabled person, just a person with disability who is rendered disabled by an unfriendly environment riddled with barriers!) When we became signatories to the UNCRPD, we promised to `take steps' to ensure a barrier-free environment and inclusive society; the only steps I can see are more buildings with steps but no ramps!

So please make measurable promises and live up to them - and do not dish out this vague nonsense which still reeks of the old `charity model of disability' rather than the one that empowers people with disability to lead useful lives in dignity!