A few days ago I wrote about the challenges of being a wheelchair user, a parent with a pushchair, or a person with limited mobility on the streets of Bangalore (Reclaiming the Streets, November 26th). I recalled my feelings of horror when watching a lady pushing an elderly gentleman along the centre of the road amongst typical traffic chaos, having clearly decided that this was her only option. The pavements of Bangalore, where they exist, are a minefield of obstacles, holes, hanging wires and piles of refuse, thus rendering them inaccessible to any but the most determined explorer.
My brief article prompted an email from a friend in Chennai this morning, which gave me both hope for optimism and cause to question whether there is truly a will to address this situation. He reports that yesterday, members of the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA), who describe themselves as “a collective of independent, community based organisations, individuals and peer groups- all passionate about disability,” took to the streets and went from door to door to raise awareness about this very issue.
Apparently, the authorities in Chennai have taken some initiative in attempting to improve the access and mobility situation in the city, and have recently invested money to widen the pavements in certain areas of the city. There is a plan to extend this programme further in an effort to make the city more user friendly for everyone. The Disability Rights Alliance have conducted their own audit of these areas and confirm that this action has been taken, and a number of ramps to make life easier for wheelchair users and others with mobility difficulties have been installed. However, far from improving the situation for those for whom this initiative was intended, the difficulties they face have taken a new twist.
The newly installed ramps have been seized upon by motorists as providing a far better means by which they can mount the pavements and park their cars or motorcycles. One of the campaigners provides an example from KB Dasan Road in the Teynampet district, where local restaurant owners and even a hospital have been encouraging drivers to use the newly accessible pavements for parking in order to visit their facilities. The members of the Disability Rights Alliance in calling from door to door to increase awareness of the legitimate reasons why the pavements have been improved, have apparently been receiving a mixed reception. Whilst some sympathise and recognise the problems of their disabled neighbours, others appear quite indifferent to their plight.
Reporting this situation to me in his email this morning, my friend suggested that this is a battle that cannot be won. The difficulties, he suggests are largely centred on a reluctance of officials, including the police, to monitor the system and take action. When discussing the situation with a neighbour he was told that if motorists are prevented from parking on the pavements this will greatly inconvenience them, and by leaving their cars on the roadside they would significantly impede the flow of traffic.
It would appear that even when the authorities respond to the campaigns of groups such as the Disability Rights Alliance, this has minimal impact upon the accessibility of the streets. My friend in Chennai is a man in his late eighties who is not very stable on his feet, and one of the most telling paragraphs in his email reads as follows.
“Having heard about the initiative to widen pavements and improve their condition I had raised my hopes that I might once again be able to get out on my own. For what seems like many years now, though in reality it is only about eighteen months, I have been a prisoner in my own home. Unless the authorities here have the conviction to enforce the law and keep the pavements for pedestrians, myself and many others will continue to live within a restricted environment.”
Progress for discriminated people invariably comes in small increments. We should always applaud the work of officials and those in positions of influence who support policies aimed at making the lives of others easier. However, I suspect that there will be many more initiatives such as this in Chennai, and elsewhere in India, that will flounder until such time as those with the power to manage these situations demonstrate the courage to see them through.