Friday, 26 June 2015

Being optimistic in spite of so many misses is what makes PwD survive

We at the `Disability Rights Alliance' (DRA) have been trying to work with the Chennai Metro Rail for more than two years, trying to ensure that at least this mode of public transport might possibly try to make sure to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. For example, I have an email dated Jan 1, 2013, addressed to a CMRL official where I try to describe a very dispiriting recce made by two of us from DRA of the CMBT CMRL which, according to the Hindu of Dec.18, 2012, was one of two stations whose structures were then complete. This is what I said in that email:

It appears that (the Hindu's report notwithstanding),the station is likely to become operational only around September. We asked the people at the site if we could look at the drawings and check out such details as dimensions of elevators, toilets for the disabled, gradients of ramps, etc.

Unfortunately, the drawings we could see did not have many of these details. I wonder if it will be possible for you to send us an e-copy of the latest drawings, complete with all details. In fact, some details such as dimensions and specifications - right down to flooring slip resistance, lighting lumens etc, would be appreciated.

(DRA’s requests (as expressed from the start) were

   - Progress update on recommendations submitted so far
   - Transparency in sharing information to enable accurate inputs with the   group, or the appointment of an Accessibility Consultant to ensure the same.   
- Disclosure to the public on what accessibility features will be   present / possible, and workaround suggestions for what will be   inaccessible so that the common passenger knows what to expect.
   - Enable disabled citizens of this State to be apprised of CMRL progress   by making its website compliant as per GIGW / WCAG 2 guidelines.
   - Ensure as far as possible, the following accessibility features as   best practice / compliance : as outlined by ACCESS FOR ALL - Best   Practices <>
   - Tactile tiles on all common passages with tactile warnings for abrupt   change in height or near hazardous areas for visually impaired
   - Signs printed in braille in the lifts to indicate floors as well as   visual / audible announcements
   - Elevator control buttons with braille  positioned at heights that are   accessible to wheelchair users
   - Grip rails on 3 walls of the elevator car at a height between   850-900mm.
   - Wide doors for lifts The lift door must have an ideal width of at   least 900 mm and an ideal surface area of  1800mm x 1200mm
   - The ticket counter maximum height limit to be restricted to 800mm to   be accessible to wheelchair users.
   - Ticket checking machine placement should allow wheelchair user passage   or there should be some alternative entry & exit for wheelchair users.
   - Accessible toilet
   - Adequately lit, non-slip flooring with ramps at the entrance of every   station (maximum slope 1:12)
   - Adequate landing space at the start and end of every ramp
   - Simple, uniform terminal design avoiding glossy surfaces / glass, and   standardised pictobraille signage for people with cognitive difficulty
   - Steps with contrast coloured nosing
   - Handrails must be placed at height between 850-900 mm on both sides of   staircase & ramp.
   - The height of the drinking water tap should be at a height less than   900mm.
   - Gap between platform and rail car should enable  a wheelchair user or   a person with a mobility device to enter and exit the train safely and   independently as far as possible.
   - Barriers between rail cars to alert customers who are blind or have   low vision of the space between the rail cars so they do not mistake this   space for the door to the inside of the rail car.
   - Bumpy tiles to alert customers who are blind or have low vision that   they are nearing the edge of the platform
   - Induction loops at ticket counters for hearing impaired passengers
   - Out of service elevator alert system)

I, for my part, would like to make two specific requests/recommendations:

(i) Can you please appoint an Accessibility consultant (such as Shivani Gupta of AccessAbulity, who is herself wheelchair-bound,  in whose competence/sensitivity almost every disabled person would have total confidence) to ensure that our various concerns will be safeguarded?

(ii) or if (i) is not feasible for some reason, can you please provide us with an itemised list of how the various issues discussed in the attachment Accessibility-Inputs-For-Chennai-Metro-Rail.pdf have been addressed by CMRL?

And we have been trying ever since to pin one of those officials down to meeting with us and reassure with plans that met international accessibility standards ... and trying ... and trying!

Two-and-a-half years later, yet another member of DRA finally managed, after what must have been a record number of phone-calls and emails, to extract a promise that several officials of CMRL would meet with a bunch of us this Wednesday (24/06/15) at 4 pm. We were all excited that we would finally have a chance to talk to them and get some details before the metro becomes operational - since it is so expensive to retrofit something that has already been constructed with serious drawbacks in its plans. 

We then get an email sent by another of our colleagues - at 12.25 on Wednesday - that she had just received a phone call from the CMRL office to tell her that Due to some urgent calls by the Government the entire team had to do an urgent inspection and report of all the stations. They have rescheduled the meeting for after the 5th of July. None of the larger team that was a part of our earlier meeting will be available today.

Now we learn the reason for the sudden cancellation: Clear of by-poll, CM may launch the metro on Sunday, yesterday's newspapers announced. So, as usual, we can only hope they got it right. In spite of multiple requests that access audits be performed in advance, preferably by an access expert who is herself a PwD, such requests are treated as mindless baying in the wind, and they continue to make mistakes - and retro-fitting, being prohibitively expensive, will never be considered - so that would be yet another opportunity lost.

I guess I must take heart from the great democratic tradition in India: even people without disabilities run the same risk!

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Unwarranted machinations and meddling

This post is not related to my customary `disability activism'. I have been driven to putting on my cap as Professor of Mathematics and write this piece since spotting that `something is rotten in the state of our academia'. The level of bullying/badgering of directors of what were once called `institutes of national importance' by government authorities is assuming alarming proportions, in what seems to be in the nature of an absolutely `no holds barred' form of street-fighting. Ministries have no compunctions about making public statements which, in civil(ised) society, would be grounds for filing defamation charges. The process of making fresh appointments of directors to institutes had been going on smoothly for almost sixty six years. The mathematically astute would have noticed that it has been close to sixty seven years since independence. The year's shortfall is not an oversight : that is the period since the last national elections, and has not strictly been acche din for our institutes of higher learning.

Until recently, a sort of system had evolved for the method of deciding on who would take over as the next director of a scientific institute when the existing one was coming close to the end of his/her tenure. Academic Councils were  staffed with academically qualified people, who would `spread the word', solicit the views of senior scientists of the institute in question, and look for some sort of consensus on suitable candidates. And this system had been working reasonably well.

But, within the past few months, there has been a spate of instances of appointments, whose high handed methods have led to consternation and an unease that these decisions, which would ideally be made on the basis of academically sound criteria by academically sound people, are being made with `academic soundness' being replaced by `what Delhi wants'. Although this post is primarily about how the scientific institutions are wilting under this new regimen, I will start with a non-science example, but one of the most flagrant such examples (as pointed out to me by a friend and another distinguished alumnus of ISI). The equivalent of eliminating essentially all members of some academic standing from the  ICHR and leaving its future in the hands of Y.S. Rao (whose very credentials as a historian have been questioned by Ms. Romila Thapar, according to the entry against his name in the Wikipedia) in a move that hints at a possible further attempt at saffronisation of our history.

Let us pass now to what the creme de la creme of scientific establishments have been facing in the last few months:

The Committee given the task of identifying the next Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was led by Prof. C.N.R. Rao, probably THE avowedly most highly regarded scientist by past governments which even bestowed the Bharat Ratna on him. Anyway, this committee had suggested that the position be filled by a respected physicist working at the institute. This Prof. Sandip Trivedi,  had had the sense to initially not be intersted in accepting such administrative responsibility which would leave him precious little time for doing physics; but he gave in, after allowing himself to be convinced by Prof. C.N.R. Rao's committee that the institute badly needed a man like him at the helm of affairs. Not too much later, the PMO issues a statement that `owing to the post not having been properly advertised', Prof. Trivedi was being stripped of his Directorship. This resulted, not surprisingly, in protests by Prof. Rao, that he had been selected as he was considered the best candidate for the position, and that Directorship of the Premiere Research Institution could not be filled in by random people responding to a newspaper advertisement. Several months later, the DAE (the ministry overlooking the running of TIFR) announced that the objections raised earlier to Prof. Trivedi's appointment had been retracted, and the he would be the Director. Interestingly, there has been no announcement yet regarding Prof. Trivedi's reaction to this latest step in the `no you aren't, yes you are' game. (I am earnestly hoping that he would say `Thanks, but no thanks'.)

Then it was the turn of the IIT's. As we all know, while there were initially only five of these institutions in the country, several political parties have been using, as part of their platform, promises to start several new IITs all over the country - Gandhinagar, Hyderabad, Patna, Jodhpur, .... Never mind that it is being found that it is very hard to attract good academics to staff these fast mushrooming institutes with. Not long ago, we witnessed a thtoughly farcical situation where more than 30 people were interviewed on one day to find directors for three of the new IIT's. Dr. Anil Khakodkar  (former Chairman of the DAE, and universally respected) who was on the selection committee for this exercise, just resigned from the committee, refusing to be part of their many ridiculous antics. There were press reports of his not having resigned, as well as stories of his disenchantment with the whole exercise.

Delhi is finding other ways of having its presence felt in academic institutions - as witnessed by the recent (and entirely unnecessary) instance of IIT Madras being pressurised to derecognise a student body which sang the praises of Ambedkar and Periyar, while also, heaven forbid, objecting to Sanskritisation, Hindi name boards in Chennai (a traditional hotbed of resistance to the idea of Hindi as a national language) and caste-related schisms - and all on the basis of an anonymous letter from `some students' asserting that this group was guilty of promoting `hate' speeches; there was such a furious reaction to this, in Chennai, and even from Fields Medallists from Harvard, that this `derecognition was revoked' after a week of undue tension in Chennai.

And now for the latest manifestation of this heavy-handed meddling. When I first got into mathematics, almost 50 years ago, people only spoke of two places in India which did cutting-edge research in mathematics: TIFR and ISI. I have been on the faculty of branches of the Indian Statistical Institute at Delhi and Bangalore for a total of about 12 years, and I have the greatest fondness and loyalty to this institute which has come through many bad patches, but always managing to pick itself up and continue to hold a place of some esteem in the world of mathematics and statistics. I have known nobody who has spent some time associated with ISI who does not have the fondest soft spot in their hearts which prays for the well-being of this remarkable institute, which almost `flourishes in spite of itself'. This whole piece was prompted by the machinations concerning the directorship  of ISI. This is what has happened, and got me - and all well-wishers of ISI - all riled up.

The man who had been holding this post for the last (almost) five years is a Professor Bimal Roy, who took over after the institute had been through a rough patch. By all accounts (from academics whom I have held in generally high regard), the institute was quite happy with his tenure. And so, apparently was the Government, since they awarded a Padma Shri (a presumably coveted honour bestowed by the President of India) to him just a few months back! His tenure was supposed to come to an end on August 1, 2015, and the council had set up a Selection Committee to be entrusted with zeroing in on the choice for next Director. There was a Council meeting when this Committee was to announce its recommended choice of name for next Director. The general feeling doing the rounds was that this choice should/would fall on one of two people, either Professor Roy himself, or a candidate who had rendered yeoman service to the Institute for more than a decade and has moved, not long ago, to a non-ISI institute for personal reasons. Then the bombshell is dropped: the future Director wil be an entirely different candidate (formerly considered an outsider, if that).Usually, the Selection Committee's choice is supposed to be a recommendation for the Council to deliberate upon. This time, however, the Chairman of the Selection Committee and the Chairman of the Council are the same: the former journalist Arun Shourie whose wearing these two caps is, no doubt, a fall-out of his connection with the ruling party. One would have hoped that such critical posts would be reserved for a reputed academician, rather than a politician. Anyway, Mr. Shourie ensures that there will be no conflict of opinions between his two caps by just announcing the Committee's decision and shortly thereafter leaving for his flight out of Kolkata. And now, the powers that be talk of perceived acts of indiscipline on the part of Bimal-da (as he is universally and affectionately called) and have stripped him of his post as Director with immediate effect, making vague charges of financial and administrative irregularities, `lest he indulge in further acts of such indiscipline or mischief'. I would have imagined that you must be well equipped with reams of proof of such misdeeds before you can dare to make such assertions of misconduct; but I suppose it is a function of the ground rules of the game (and who decides these rules)!

Going back to something I have said in an earlier post in this blog, this is exactly the sort of occasion when the Presidents of our Academies of Science should speak in one voice and say enough is enough, you politicians leave science to us scientists and you concentrate on doing your job of governing the land. God knows there are enough problems needing their attention: appalling frequency of rapes; spiralling rate of traffic related deaths; farmer suicides; non-implementation of `laws' like (i) abolition of manual scavenging, (ii) compliance with the UNCRPD; caste-related daily violence, like thrashing a teen-aged girl for daring to have her shadow fall on a high-caste.