Shishu Sarothi protests against the discrimination meted out to Suvarna Raj, a wheelchair-bound para-athlete

The humiliation faced by Suvarna Raj, a wheelchair-bound para-athlete, travelling with the Indian Railway has again revealed the careless attitude of the Indian Railway towards the rights of the persons with disability.

Suvarna Raj, who is a para-athlete and also a disabled rights activist, was humiliated by the railway officials during her travel from Nagpur to Delhi. It is very shameful that despite being 90% disabled, she was allotted an upper berth. Besides, Officials allegedly turned down her request citing non-availability of berths leaving her no choice but to sleep on the floor.

Though activists and organizations working for the protection of the rights of the persons with disability, have been making demands to provide necessary facilities for disabled people in railways and other public transport systems, the central and state governments is continuously failing to provide the same, which also seems to be lack of political wills.

Shishu Sarothi, a non-profit organization working for the rights of the children and people with disability also raised its voice many times against the discrimination on persons with disability in public transportation. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL No. 32/2013) had been filed by Shishu Sarothi highlighting the abject negligence on the part of the North East frontier railways to provide a barrier free environment for persons with disabilities in the railway stations in Guwahati. Shishu Sarothi filed the PIL after fifteen children of Shishu Sarothi had to face an unfortunate and humiliating situation at the New Delhi and the Guwahati Railway Station because of the absence of the basic facilities like availability of wheelchairs in the stations, inaccessible toilets and inaccessible platforms etc. Through the PIL, though Shishu Sarothi has brought some disabled friendly changes at the stations, definitely those are much less than what persons with disability needs.

For more than two decade, we had the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights & Full Participation) Act, 1995, providing provisions for non-discrimination in transport and built environment and now we have the Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016 includes provisions directing the government to provide facilities for persons with disabilities at bus stops, railway stations and airports and also to make all the modes of transport accessible for persons with disability. Besides, in December 2015, the centre also launched Accessible India Campaign to create barrier free environment for persons with disabilities, targeting to make 25 percent of public transport vehicles disabled friendly till mid 2017 and 50 percent government buildings till the end of May 2018. Despite all these provisions and policies, a para-athlete like Suvarna Raj, who has represented India in various international events, has to face humiliation during her travel, making it very easy for us to understand what kind of steps has been taken by the government to make travel disabled friendly in India. Forget about barrier free infrastructure. The basic awareness about disability is also seems to be missing.

Raising her voice against the discrimination she faced during her travel, Suvarna Raj has rooted out the true face of The Indian Railway once again and forced the government to act for the betterment of the travelling conditions. Recently, in a meeting to review the short-term and the long-term plans of Indian Railway, Suresh Prabhu, Honorable Railway Minister instructed the officials to keep lower berths for the disabled in all Second Class Luggage Rank for Disabled (SLRD) coaches. These coaches are disabled-friendly in terms of seating arrangement and in width. The ministry also announced that 3,000 modified coaches, only for the disabled in general seating (GS) coaches, had already been made. Though the Railway Ministry is making statements of bringing a disabled friendly environment at the railway stations all over India; can we really trust those? Because our past experiences do not allow us to believe such statements. Besides, whatever facilities the ministry is promising to provide are not enough considering the size of the population of the persons with disabilities in India. There for, before making any statements, we suggest that our authorities should properly understand the concept of “barrier- free” and come up with a plan keeping the size of the people with disability in their minds. Because, making coaches barrier free does not make the whole Railway or other mode of transport barrier-free.

What Suvarna Raj has experienced is not only the fault of the Railway Ministry or the Government alone. The society is equally responsible for all the discrimination faced by the persons with disability in India. The Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016, again gives us the opportunity to bring about positive changes in our system and make a genuine  effort to make our world inclusive.