All infra must have a barrier-free design

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Gati Shakti plan is a forward-looking program. Straddling seven sectors — roads, railways, airports, ports, mass transport, waterways and logistics infrastructure — the project could be a massive gamechanger for the general public. To maximise the benefit of the project, however, the government needs to add one more dimension to the existing plan: Accessibility, which must be at the heart of all future transport and built-environment projects.

To do so, the government must re-energise the Sugamya Bharat or Accessible India campaign. The nationwide campaign for achieving universal accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) was launched in 2015. It has three important components: Built-environment accessibility; transportation system accessibility; and information and communication ecosystem accessibility.

In addition to re-energising the campaign, it is important to expand it to include persons with reduced mobility to achieve the plan’s vision. This is important to do so because advancements in medical science, health care and sanitation facilities have increased life expectancy of Indians: From 32 years in the post-Independence era to 69 years in 2019. So, the question we must ask is this: Are we doing enough to improve the quality of life of this cohort? Are the elderly able to lead independent and barrierfree lives? Today, India has 138 million elderly people, which is set to rise by 41% to 194 million by 2031, and 319 million by 2050.

The Accessible India campaign is governed by the Rights of Persons with Disability (RPwD) Act, 2016, and was implemented from 2017. It targets to achieve its objectives by 2022. With an objective of empowering persons with disabilities in the country, in 2007, India also ratified the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD), 2006. Article 9 of UNCRPD is the accessibility clause that mandates member-States to take all possible steps to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life.

But seven years since the launch of the Accessible India campaign, where are accessible public buildings, transport systems, hospitals, schools and colleges? Where is the inclusive environment that encourages persons to come out of their homes independently to access education or earn a living? It is also important to remember that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that disability cannot be a reason or criteria for lack of access to development programs and the realization of human rights.

Other than PwDs and people with reduced mobility due to age or injuries, a barrier-free environment is important for pregnant women, the sick and injured and children. There has also been a rise in the number of PwDs in the country. The 2011 Census data shows that at 21.9 million, PwDs make up only 2.1% of the population. Since 2011, the number of recognized disabilities has been expanded by the government from seven to 21. A logical computation then would put the figure at 6.3%, which is still far lower than the global average rate of 15%. So, if one adds the needs of the persons with reduced mobility to this number, the total number of people requiring accessibility support is much greater than we think.

Recent projections estimate close to half of the country’s population will live in urban areas by 2047, when India marks 100 years of freedom. If we want to reap the demographic dividend of a young nation, we must make public transportation, public playgrounds, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and other spaces and facilities accessible for everyone so that they can meet their life goals and also contribute to the nation’s sociology -economic well-being. Rethinking infrastructure design with an accessibility-first approach will be a gamechanger for our country.

Sminu Jindal is managing director, Jindal SAW Ltd, and founder chairperson, Svayam.The views expressed are personal

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