It was going to be a train trip for me soon after a long time. I was traveling to Puttaparthi by Karnataka Express for darashan of Sri Satya Sai Baba along with my father who is a staunch devotee. For a number of people train travels were something to look forward to and enjoyable. In fact they were enjoyable for me to till I became severely disabled having to use a wheelchair. Since I became disabled I tried to avoid train travels as much as possible but considering that it was the most affordable means of travel I was forced to use it on occasions.
My father made the bookings well in advance. The railways gave a considerably large concession on the ticket for the disabled traveller and one escort traveling with them making the travel very cheap. We had heard about a ‘Handicapped Coach’ that the railways had introduced in every train. But it was an unreserved coach so a disabled passenger could not reserve it and as a matter of safety and convenience a disabled person would rarely travels unreserved, therefore this coach was useless for us as it still remains to be for most disabled travellers.
|Coach for disabled about 2 feet high and a feet away |
from the platform without a ramp
I was happy for not having access to this ‘Handicapped Coach’ that the Railways had so generously provided. Firstly the coach was a second-class coach and considering in the scorching heat in May we were going to travel air-conditioned. Secondly the design of the coach was not exceptionally accessible – boarding the train was still going to be difficult and using the toilet was still going to be impossible. The most important reason why I was happy not using this ‘special’ facility was because I did not want to be singled out along with my family and placed separately. I found the entire concept discriminatory. In my mind it was like the British Raj where Indians were not allowed in the same compartment as the British, here the disabled travellers being same as the Indians.
|State of the toilet in the coach for disabled people|
One of the main preparations for me before a train travel apart from packing was organise my bladder and bowel as the toilets in the train are inaccessible to a disabled person like me. Just because the Railways have designed their coaches to be so inaccessible to the disabled most people with disabilities are faced with this challenge. Considering it was a two-day journey, I needed to stop my intake of food and liquids nearly two days before commencing the journey. It is not easy to do so because as dehydration sets in one begins to feel weak. Needless to say I needed to keep the intake to bare minimum throughout the journey.
|Overflowing drinking water facility|
This I must point out is just the beginning of the difficulties to travel be train. The Railways is proud of making its large stations accessible to disabled people, but here again there is much to be done. During a visit to the New and Old Delhi railway stations recently, I was amazed at the bizarre on ground implementation of these access features. The low drinking water sink was blocked and overflowing with water. The accessible restroom was located in the ladies waiting room making me wonder where a disabled man was supposed to go. As for the condition of the special waiting room the lesser said the better.
|crossing over tracks|
In this entire thread of thought while making stations more disabled friendly there is no concern for the safety of disabled passengers. The basic issue of inter-platform transfer seems to have been entirely ignored. For instance, whenever I’ve travelled by train, I have always been taken as luggage over the railway tracks by a coolie, putting me as a passenger at a higher risk of accidents than anybody else. What disheartens me most is when I often read in news papers that the Railways in its understanding is sanctioning money to install escalators in various stations for the benefit of disabled people while it’s a internationally recognised norm that people using wheelchairs are not allowed to use escalators. A rule followed by the Delhi Metro and the Airports in India but happily ignored by the Railways. This again is an indication towards poor safety concern for the disabled.
The anxiety of travel does not subside even after reaching the platform well in time to board the train. The coolies that was hired to bring me over the tracks till the platform was engaged on the condition that he was going to board me in the train and leave me on my berth. Of course the cost of this is high therefore as a disabled traveller while the railways was generous in its concessions but because of inaccessibility the added cost to hire two coolies to board and de-board me compensates for the concession availed.
Once the train arrived and the initial frenzy subsided two coolies lift me like a sack of potatoes (one grabbing me from under my shoulders and the other from under my knees) and carry me in. There is no point in my feeling awkward or angry at the way I am physically handled as there are no other options in any case. Train is about 50 cm higher from the platform and carrying me up is difficult, but the real challenge is taking me in through the extra narrow and extra heavy door of the air-conditioned compartment. There is a jam caused my getting in blocking the way for the rest. In between all the confusion that is created the coolies struggle to squeeze in in through the door. There are always a few scratches or red finger marks of the coolies hand that remain as a memory of this experience. I take a deep breath of relief as I settle on my berth finally. One third of the journey is completed for me at that moment.
As the train rolls forward I stay happily perched on my berth enjoying the scenery outside as feeling bad about the way I am treated as a disabled person is of no use as in so many years of being disabled I have reconciled to this differential treatment, it is not something specific only to the railways in any case. My berth was my spot for the next two days as I am going to be able to get down for some fresh air at any of the stations neither was I going to be able to access the sink or the toilet. With a restricted intake there was nothing more that I could do to avert something as natural as natures call. All I hoped for now was for an eventless journey.
As the train jolted to a halt at the Puttaparti Station where the stop was just for a couple of minutes, my father was already at the compartment door trying to hail to coolies to help us out. He had already spoken to the ticket conductor explaining him our problem in de-boarding the train and requesting him to ensure that the train didn’t move ahead without letting us off. The TC assured him and told him not to worry and get of comfortably. In spite of hurrying frantically to expedite our de-boarding, the train jolted ahead with me in the hands of two coolies with one of them on the platform and the other still in the train. I thought this was the end of me but my father ran forward and grab me and put me on the platform. From the moving train the coolies unloaded my wheelchair and other luggage, it was clear that the TC had not bothered to ensure my safety as he had promised to.
This was a journey that is etched in my mind forever. Today as I have become older and broader physically I know that there is no way I can make a train journey ever again. The only mode of travel available to me is to travel by air. Since it is not something that is very affordable to me I am very restricted in my travel not able to take as may holidays I would like to. I am discriminated and excluded because of only one reason and that reason is ‘inaccessibility’. As a disabled person only the more expensive services are accessible to me such as air travel instead of rail travel, using taxis instead of public transport, five star hotels instead of cheaper guest houses. It is as though I am being charged a tax for being disabled!
The concession provided by the railways is useless unless they provide accessibility and providing accessibility is not rocket science, it only required that the railways consider inclusion, safety and comfort of disabled travellers as one of their main objectives and then work towards it in a phased and an inclusive manner. It is not charity that a disabled person needs in the form of concessions rather we want inclusion and the right to use the service with the same dignity and convenience as anybody else.