Despite the existence of various disability rights frameworks in India, there are significant challenges to the effective realisation of these rights. A key issue is while disability rights are guaranteed under central laws, their realisation in regard to accessibility to urban space lies in the domain of state and municipal laws, which vary across jurisdictions.
At the national level, the Constitution of India guarantees to all persons with disabilities the right to equality, freedom and life, including the right to accessibility, at par with any other person or citizen of India. This progressive, rights-based regime is also reflected in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. The RPWDA, which gives effect to India’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, places the onus on the appropriate government to realise the rights and entitlements guaranteed under it.
While some of the norms are issued at the national level, their adoption, application, implementation and monitoring rests with state agencies, municipal bodies, development authorities and other urban local bodies (ULBs).
Some legal norms
Planning is the starting point for the sustainable development of an urban area. Towards this, the Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO), the technical wing of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MOHUA) has issued the Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI) Guidelines, 2014. These guidelines set out the methodology for preparing the master plan or development plan of a particular area, in view of the socio-economic requirements of the inhabitants of that area. The URDPFI Guidelines recognise that urban spaces as well as their infrastructure must be barrier-free and the planning process itself must be inclusive and participatory.
The URDPFI Guidelines merely serve as a model for state governments; town and country planning laws in India are required to be enacted by states. In case of Karnataka, the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961 (KTCPA) lays down the procedure for preparing a master plan and designates planning authorities within the state who will be responsible for preparing the master plan for the planning area under their jurisdiction. The KTCPA designates the Bangalore Development Authority as the planning authority for the city of Bengaluru.
Subsequent to planning of an urban area, the urban infrastructure itself must be accessible. The RPWDA prescribes the accessibility standards for various categories of urban spaces, i.e., built/physical environment, mobility and transportation, and ICTs.
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Issues for consideration
A critical analysis of the laws indicates the failure to incorporate the spirit of accessibility as well as specific access requirements into the existing legal frameworks governing urban planning, design, and governance in Karnataka as well as in the rest of India. Based on the analysis of existing legal and policy frameworks from a disability and feminist perspective, the following issues emerge for consideration.
Problems in understanding accessibility
While thinking of accessibility, it is essential to take into account external constraints including affordability, competing priorities, and availability of technology and knowledge, along with sensitivity to cultural differences. The following problems emerge in the context of understanding accessibility to urban space.
Emphasis on physical disability, limited consideration of invisible disabilities in accessibility standards results in the exclusion of persons with intellectual, mental and psychosocial disabilities and their needs from urban space
Persistent lack of imagination in envisioning urban accessibility, which results in a lack of consideration of persons with disabilities as imagined users of the city as well as an absence of centring women and girls with disabilities, so that access is not understood in isolation but in relation to safety and dignity in the city, including issues that women with disabilities face disproportionately owing to the combined experience of gender and disability.
Limitations of barrier-free design and the need for cross-disability perspectives, to ensure that accessibility is not reduced to wheelchair accessibility, but considers the diversity of disabilities and their differing needs. It is necessary to shift focus on only physical dimensions of space, to a universal design approach that considers all disabilities and is sensitive to factors such as gender, affordability, and age, among others.
Structural problems in urban planning frameworks include larger systemic problems in existing urban planning and municipal governance frameworks such as lack of decentralisation of planning functions and lack of inclusive practices in urban design. The existing urban planning paradigm does not enable participatory planning or facilitate the representation of vulnerable groups such as women with disabilities in the planning process.
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Challenges in implementation
Despite the prevalence of legal frameworks that address accessibility in a variety of contexts such as the built environment, transport and mobility, and ICTs, among others, there are significant challenges that hinder the implementation of such frameworks. They are:
While the municipal legal framework sets out the accessibility standards to be followed in public buildings along with inspection requirements, in reality, these are not strictly enforced, and such buildings continue to remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Furthermore, while bye-laws under the KMC Act, KM Act and BBMP Act have been issued by the state government, they have not been updated to reflect the recent changes in accessibility standards, rendering the regulations outdated in the face of changing standards and the latest research. While there is a provision for empanelment of professionals for inspecting and certifying that a building has complied with all the requirements stipulated in the bye-laws, this does not include persons with disabilities.
A review of public procurement law and illustrative tenders issued by municipal authorities, within the state of Karnataka, indicates that a disability perspective is absent in the state’s current public procurement laws and policy. This is an oversight since public procurement processes have gained attention increasingly as a key area for intervention and an effective implementation tool to promote accessibility of products and services procured by the government.
Information and communication technology
The primary issue for consideration when it comes to information and communication technology accessibility in India is the ambiguity that exists on whether or not the Guidelines for Indian Government websites are applicable to private establishments as well. As per the RPWDA and the RPWD Rules, these standards are equally applicable to private entities. However, a reading of the law shows that the current guidelines seem to apply only to government websites. This is in contravention of the above-stated laws and must be rectified immediately through the unambiguous inclusion of private enterprise websites and applications within the current guidelines.
Mobility and transportation
The primary issue for consideration in the space of mobility and transportation is the lack of unified policymaking and implementation body. This has affected the execution of transportation policies that are otherwise cognizant of accessibility standards. Due to the involvement of multiple ministries and agencies at the central, state and municipal levels, planning and regulation of public transport is fragmented.
Lack of adequate monitoring and maintenance of accessibility initiatives
Even if accessibility initiatives have been undertaken, their ongoing maintenance and monitoring are critical to ensure that such a space is permanently accessible and to ensure that external factors are not disruptive to continued accessibility. The lack of ongoing stakeholder engagement was found to be a significant hurdle in securing an accessibility initiative’s lifespan. Involving local Disabled People’s Organisations in the monitoring and maintenance of accessibility infrastructure in their localities could prove critical for the continuation of accessibility initiatives.
Lack of coordination, sensitisation and capacity building.
A key challenge is the lack of coordination between different government departments which operate in silos. There is a lack of sensitisation, awareness, and technical capacity both within the government as well as the private sector, particularly at the level of implementation in local settings. There is a lack of appropriate training for architects, engineers, urban planners, and managers working at the municipal level, along with those involved in procurement and monitoring as well as contract management. Inclusive design approaches are also not a part of the curriculum in professional degrees like civil engineering, architecture, and other allied disciplines.
Adopting Universal Design
The early incorporation of Universal Design rooted in local contexts following a participatory and consultative process is key to building equitable cities. Adopting Universal Design in the initial stages of planning contributes only 0–1 per cent of additional costs, if any, and often, redesigning for accessible buildings requires no additional space, only rearrangement of the existing plan. It is important to note that while Universal Design emerged primarily with regard to accessibility for persons with disabilities, it is also a key broad-spectrum solution that is beneficial to everyone, including the elderly, people with strollers, pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses, and children, with the aim of removing barriers to access and creating an inclusive environment for everyone.
Akhileshwari Reddy is a Research Fellow at Vidhi. Damini is a Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi. Namratha is a Research Fellow at Vidhi. Riddhi is an Associate Fellow, Vidhi and a guest writer. Sneha is a Research Fellow at Vidhi. All are based in Karnataka. Views are personal.
This excerpt from a report titled ‘Beyond Reasonable Accomodation: Making Karnataka’s Cities Accessible by Design to Persons with Disabilities’ has been published with permission from Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. You can read the whole report here.