Restricted access

How a Delhi group is encouraging the differently-abled to come out and play

Planet Abled organises accessible heritage walks, tours and other excursions.

On a warm Sunday evening in Dilli Haat in South Delhi, cyber security professional Pranav Lal, 37, read out a short story he wrote – Space for Vegetables – to an eager and appreciative audience.

Lal, who is visually-impaired, has written six novellas and several short stories. He was one of many writers, poets, singers and musicians who participated in a two-hour long event at Dilli Haat organised by Planet Abled, a Delhi-based accessible travel company, which encourages and promotes recreational activities for the disabled.

Sunday’s event, said Neha Arora, the founder of Planet Abled, was an effort to bring out the creative side of disabled people, many of whom are into music, and write poetry and prose. One visually-impaired participant recited a Sanskrit poem. Several others read from their blogs, or shared their experiences of growing up with a disability. This was the first time many of them present had performed before an audience. “The idea was to allow them to do what they liked, and we listened,” said Arora.

“I love reading books and enjoy writing quite a bit," said Lal. "For today’s event, I had to figure out the best way to present my story for maximum inclusion.”

By maximum inclusion Lal meant that his reading should have been accessible to even the hearing impaired. He didn’t have to worry – an interpreter communicated the crux of Lal’s, and all other narrations, to the lone hearing-impaired audience member present there.

At Planet Abled's Dilli Haat event on Sunday, participants read out poetry and prose they wrote before an appreciative audience. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)
At Planet Abled's Dilli Haat event on Sunday, participants read out poetry and prose they wrote before an appreciative audience. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)

Excursions for the disabled

The Dilli Haat gathering was the sixth such event organised by Planet Abled this year. Its first – a heritage walk at the Qutub Minar – was organised in January. Similar walks to the Red Fort and Lodi Gardens followed as did a trip to Agra where participants were taken to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. “The Agra tour was customised for a group of wheelchair users who came from Mumbai,” said Arora. “We combined it with a food tour, where the popular Agra Bedmi pooris were served for breakfast, and the famous Ram babu paranthas for lunch.”

Arora quit her job with Adobe Systems last November in order to work full-time with Planet Abled, which she founded in 2014 to promote travel and leisure activities for the disabled, who, according to the 2001 census, comprise 2.1% of India's population. They are often not seen outdoors because of accessibility and other issues.

Arora’s father was in college when an eye inflammation left him completely blind. Her mother, affected by polio in childhood, is wheelchair-bound. Both were employees with the Uttar Pradesh government in Agra, where Arora grew up. While her parents were fond of travelling, vacations ended up being a big hassle. “Many public places were not disabled-friendly,” said Arora. “Travelling in buses and trains was a task due to their inaccessibility, but we could not afford flights. My parents would often feel that they were troubling us and ask me and my sister to go ahead and travel while they stayed home. They were reluctant to travel, given the issues we had to repeatedly face.”

It was this experience that gave birth to Planet Abled.

A tour of the Qutb Minar was organised in January. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)
A tour of the Qutb Minar was organised in January. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)

The accessibility problem

Those who have participated in Planet Abled’s events and excursions credit the group for its dedication towards ensuring that disabled persons can fulfil their recreational needs.

Rahul Rawal, 32, who is wheelchair-bound, told that though there are several travel portals in India, most don’t cater to the disabled. Planet Abled has filled that space. “As a wheelchair user, accessibility is the biggest question on my mind,” said Rawal. “But Planet Abled manages everything really well. I have been a part of three tours with them.”

During the Qutub Minar excursion, visually impaired participants get a sense of the complex by touching the carvings and inscriptions. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)
During the Qutub Minar excursion, visually impaired participants get a sense of the complex by touching the carvings and inscriptions. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)

The group and its volunteers face some frustrating challenges related to accessibility while organising their excursions as India still has a long way to go before the disabled can freely access public transport and public spaces. Initiatives like the Accessible India Campaign – unveiled last December – have been launched for that specific purpose, but it will take time for the results to show.

For instance, at several heritage monuments, the lack of toilets designed for wheelchair users are a problem. “Only the Taj Mahal was better off,” said Arora. “We have to literally pick up wheelchair-bound people and put them on the commode. The males can still manage but female wheelchair users face a very hard time.”

At several heritage monuments, wheelchair accessibility is a big problem especially in toilets. The Taj Mahal has slightly better facilities than others, said Neha Arora of Planet Abled. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)
At several heritage monuments, wheelchair accessibility is a big problem especially in toilets. The Taj Mahal has slightly better facilities than others, said Neha Arora of Planet Abled. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)

Most heritage monuments also have very steep steps, and no ramps. To counter this common problem, Arora has procured a portable ramp that the group carries during its outings. “Wherever there are steps, the temporary ramp is put up and wheelchair users can easily be wheeled up,” she said.

There are other unique challenges. For instance, Arora is planning a Planet Abled tour of the hills at the moment. While looking for accommodation, she found out that most hotels tend to keep only one disabled-friendly room so it is difficult to accommodate an entire group in one hotel. “We are now forced to look for multiple properties which are nearby so that the group can be coordinated,” said Arora.

Also, wherever there are ramps, at least in the national capital, these are usually made of Delhi quartz stone, a rough cobblestone, with wide gaps between each piece. “The tyres of wheelchairs get stuck in these gaps but nobody in the ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] has really thought about this,” said Arora. “Perhaps it is because these ramps have been made by abled persons who do not understand the exact problems a disabled person may encounter.”

Heritage walks

Planet Abled’s volunteers often go to great lengths to understand these problems. For instance, heritage enthusiast Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, who has been roped in to conduct its heritage walks in Delhi, recces the area several times to chart out the best route for all disabled participants before each walk. To prepare for the Qutub Minar excursion, Rooprai visited Mehrauli archaeological park thrice – once sitting on a wheelchair with Arora pushing him – to chart out the best route. This also enabled him to understand what a wheelchair-bound person could see from that height, and he elaborated on those elements during his tour. He conducted a similar recce for the group's trip to the Red Fort.

Rooprai also keeps each participant’s impairment in mind. For instance, he said he doesn’t talk about the colours of various stones with those blind from birth as “I know they do not have an understanding of colour.” Instead, he discusses the elements that the visually-impaired can touch. “I tell them about arches, gates, pillars, carvings and inscriptions… things they can touch and feel,” said Rooprai.

The Planet Abled team provides deaf and mute visitors and their sign-language interpreters with scripts with background and other details of the monuments.

Above and below: A visually-impaired person touches flowers during a trip to Delhi’s Garden Tourism Festival in February. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)
Above and below: A visually-impaired person touches flowers during a trip to Delhi’s Garden Tourism Festival in February. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)

In February, Planet Abled, in collaboration with Delhi Tourism, organised a tour of Delhi’s annual Garden Tourism Festival for around 12 wheelchair-bound and visually-impaired participants. The group received special permission from the tourism and horticulture department that enabled its visually-impaired participants to touch the flowers and bonsais displayed at the Garden of Five Senses in South Delhi.

“A horticulture expert volunteered to explain to our participants how the flowers are grown, pruned, and the weather conditions required,” said Arora. “They could touch the flowers and bonsais to feel their textures.”

Next in line is a pottery workshop, a vacation in the hills and guided tours of museums – a wise decision given Delhi’s sweltering weather at the moment.

The gawker challenge

Arora said that most accessible travel groups focus only on one disability – either visual impairments, motor impairments or hearing and speaking disabilities – as it is more convenient to cater to one group type. Bringing them all together leads to more interaction, she said. “They see people suffering from other disabilities and understand them better.”

She wishes that people, who gawk at the disabled in public spaces, would make an attempt at understanding too. Often, people stare or, in rare cases, pass crude remarks. This attitude is one of the biggest challenges Arora faces.

Wheelchair users at Planet Abled’s trip to the Red Fort. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)
Wheelchair users at Planet Abled’s trip to the Red Fort. (Photo courtesy: Planet Abled)

“When we went to Lodi Gardens, a visually-impaired lady from Mumbai was walking slowly, holding my hand,” said Arora. “We passed by a group of men and one of them exclaimed: ‘Oh my god! Is she blind?’ The lady was elderly and mature, so she handled the situation well. But I felt really hurt,” Arora said. “People in our country are not very aware of these issues.”

Perhaps as more and more disabled people venture outdoors encouraged by initiatives by Planet Abled and other groups, attitudes will finally change.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.