Public transport in the national Capital has come a long way since Red Line and Blue Line referred to the fleet of buses that served the city, and not to the Delhi Metro. Since then, using public transport to travel around the National Capital Region is something that many of the city’s residents take for granted.
But what about people with disabilities? For instance, can a wheelchair user commute independently in the city?
Several wheelchair users in the city said that public transport options for them are limited. They say while it was possible for them to access the Delhi Metro, it was challenging and frustrating to take buses, especially for that crucial last-mile connectivity. They say taxis are not equipped to cater to wheelchair users either.
‘Ignored at the bus stop’
Preeti Singh, a 24-year-old who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, a congenital disorder that has left her wheelchair-bound, lives in South Delhi’s Munirka and commutes every day to central Delhi’s Barakhamba Road using a combination of public transport services like the bus and the Delhi Metro. She is studying for the Common Admission Test or CAT for admission into the Indian Institutes of Management.
Singh says her commute is not easy. She often has to wait for long periods at the bus stop for a bus she can board. This is not because buses do not ply on her route, but because most buses are either inaccessible to her, or the staff of low-floor accessible buses ignore her at the bus stop.
“I regularly use DTC [Delhi Transport Corporation] buses for my commute, but it often involves arguing with the conductor to get on board,” said Singh. “The moment they see a wheelchair at the bus stand, they do not stop.”
Delhi Transport Corporation, the city’s main public transport operator, plies over 3,600 low-floor buses out of its total fleet of 5,600 buses. The low-floor buses are meant to be wheelchair friendly but several of them remain inaccessible to wheelchair users because of factors such as the lack of functional ramps at bus stands, inaccessible pavements, as well as the lack of awareness of the bus staff towards the requirements of wheelchair users and also their insensitivity.
“Even though they brought accessible buses, the problem is with bus stands,” said Singh. “They are not accessible. There are issues with footpaths. To get to a bus stand is a big task. The bus stop near my house does not have space for the bus ramp to open so that I can board the bus with ease and dignity.”
Another problem with buses, even wheelchair accessible ones, is that their drivers tend to stop far away from the kerb. This means that people with disabilities have to depend on other commuters and the bus staff to help them board the bus.
Having an accessible public transport system enables people with disabilities to move around the city independently. Singh says the Delhi Metro has given her hope regarding accessibility as it has wheelchair-friendly elevators, ramps, and the metro corporation even provides assistance at its stations to people who request for it.
Like Singh, many other wheelchair users across Delhi lament the lack of an accessible bus service.
Kaushlesh Kumar, a 27-year-old postgraduate student at Delhi University, suffers from polio that has left him wheelchair-bound since the age of two. He has had to purchase a mobility bike in order to commute every day without having to ask for help at every stage of his journey.
“I had to buy my own scooter so that I do not remain dependent on others for travelling,” said Kumar. “DTC buses are hard to board as the conductors do not open ramps. Some of them don’t even know that ramps exist so that people like us can board the bus”
Pratishtha Deveshwar, a 20-year-old student of Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College, moved to Delhi from Hoshiarpur in Punjab last year thinking that the national Capital will be more accessible than her native town for a wheelchair-bound person like her. Like Singh, she too says that the Delhi Metro is accessible. However she adds that last-mile coverage, which only buses can deliver, remains a challenge. “Taking a bus is not easy,” she said. “Before reaching the bus stand, one has to navigate many hurdles.”
Taxis are hardly an option either, she says. “Cab drivers have refused [to allow] me to board the car because they do not have space to store my wheelchair,” she said. “Even if they have, only few are willing to help.”
Deveshwar has rented a house near her college and uses a motorised wheelchair to travel to the campus and back. She says she has had to drive her wheelchair on the road, which is risky, as the pavements leading to her college do not have ramps
Several other wheelchair users face similar problems. This is one of the reasons why disability rights activist Nipun Malhotra, 28, who suffers from a locomotor disability and is wheelchair bound, petitioned the Delhi High Court last year against the Delhi Transport Corporation’s plan to procure 2,000 standard-floor buses, which people with disabilities find difficult to access as compared to low-floor buses. This petition was bolstered by another filed by Preeti Singh in November. She argued that such a procurement runs afoul of the rights of disabled persons. In March, Malhotra filed a second plea shortly after the transport corporation issued fresh bids to procure 1,000 standard-floor buses instead of 2,000. Acting on the petitions, in June, the Delhi High Court rapped the Delhi government, which runs the transport corporation, and stayed the procurement of standard-floor buses. The matter even went to the Supreme Court, which also argued in favour of disabled-friendly transport. However, while hearing the matter last month, the apex court allowed the corporation to procure 500 standard-floor buses considering the dire need for the operator to increase its depleting fleet of buses. However the court told the corporation to install mechanical lifts in standard-floor buses so that they become accessible to everyone.
“I think it is the duty of every state government to ensure that public transport is accessible,” said Malhotra who runs an NGO called Wheels For Life, a platform dedicated to empowering persons with disabilities. “There is a huge population who are disabled. So we cannot segregate and totally ignore a population. We need to ensure that they are mainstreamed, and providing accessible transport is the first move in that direction.”
He says that even private taxi services such as Uber and Ola must offer wheelchair-friendly cars.
“Accessibility need to be prioritised from the top,” said Malhotra. “Sensitivity needs to come in and people with disabilities need to be taken into the decision-making process.”
All photographs by Aabid Shafi.