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Friday, 27 February 2015
Benefits for disabled, but some unhappy
The railway budget today proposed lifts and escalators at stations for the disabled and Braille signage on coaches.
Minister Suresh Prabhu also provided "a facility for online booking of wheelchairs on payment basis" for the aged, ailing and physically challenged at select stations.
This is aimed at offering relief from the challenge of hunting for wheelchairs at stations, not all of which are adequately stocked with them.
A child looks through the window of a train in New Delhi on Thursday.
The budget speech did not clarify whether those who don't wish to book wheelchairs in advance against a payment will retain the option of trying to find one at the station and use it free of charge.
Prabhu also announced that the "rail coach factory has been asked to explore the possibility of building wider entrances" for the benefit of wheelchair-bound passengers.
Some disabled-rights activists, though, expressed disappointment with the announcements, saying they didn't go far enough.
"Except for conceding one of the long-pending demands of having Braille signage on coaches, none of the other major issues... have been accepted," said the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD), a voluntary organisation.
"Persons with visual impairment can reach the coaches independently only if there are tactile (Braille) markings to guide them (on the) bridges, stairs and platforms as also Braille signage on the entry/exit points and on the railing of the foot over-bridge."
Rights activists were unhappy that Prabhu made no mention of ramps, which they said were unavailable at most railway stations, forcing the disabled to be lifted manually into the coaches.
Some of them criticised the idea of charging money for booking wheelchairs, saying the option should be free.
One of the activists' demands was to abolish the "special" coaches for the disabled, which they see as "exclusionary". Major Indian trains have a special coach - with ramps, space for wheelchairs and adjustable seats - that accommodates just eight disabled passengers and their escorts.
"The coach (for the disabled) is totally disconnected from all other compartments," rues the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, India.
"There should be a clear plan to design (all) coaches... so that disabled people can travel with dignity and comfort in whichever class or compartment they wish to, from say a general category bogey to a first (class) AC coach."
In this context, Prabhu's suggestion of wider coach entrances earned qualified endorsement.
"This is a good thing... (but) would be meaningful only if issues like the reduction of the gap (height) between the platform and the compartment, manoeuvring space inside the compartments and accessible toilets are also addressed," said S.K. Rungta, general secretary of the National Federation of the Blind.
"There is no talk of universal design or provision of sign language interpreters at stations," he regretted.
Prabhu's announcement of a wider private role in the railways stoked fears that the inapplicability of reservations to the private sector would hit the "already shrinking employment avenues for the disabled" in the railways.
A sum of Rs 120 crore has been earmarked for making the railways disabled-friendly. This is 76 per cent higher than the final allotment in the current financial year.