Monday, March 21, 2011

Physical Infrastructure Accessibility Standards for India

Most of us – people with disabilities – very often visit ‘accessible’ spaces only to find them being designed in a way that in spite of being signposted as ‘accessible’, they are unusable or can be used only with tremendous effort and difficulty. Worse is that there is no way we can complain about poor design of accessible facilities because there are no Standards for infrastructural accessibility that have been adopted by our country. This leaves the designers and planners to design based on innumerable guidance available online that may or may not be the best for us.

The three accessibility guidelines brought out by various Ministries include the C.P.W.D. design guidelines published by the Ministry of Urban Development, ‘Planning a Barrier Free Environment’ published by the Office of the Chief Commissioner, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Accessibility chapter in the National Building Code by the Bureau of Indian Standards. According to a survey undertaken by AccessAbility, only 11% of architects were aware and used either of these to get information about accessible design. Most relied on the internet for information. This is so because all of these are guidances and none are mandated in India.

With this background, a welcome step taken by the Ministry of Urban Development (M.U.D.) is the effort to harmonize the three above mentioned documents and update them to the latest design requirements as per international standards. Having Accessibility Standards that are adopted and are applicable to the entire nation is the first step for ensuring appropriate and uniform accessibility throughout.

M.U.D. has constituted a ‘Committee for Harmonization of Guidelines for Barrier-Free Built Access.’ It was decided by this Committee early last year to form a Sub-Group for drafting Building Accessibility Standards/Guidelines. Regular meetings are being held under the Director of M.U.D., Ashutosh Joshi with group members that include Papiya Sarkar, Senior Architect, C.P.W.D.; J.B. Kshirsagar, Chief Planner, T.C.P.O.; A.K. Saini of Bureau of Indian Standards; M.L. Chotani, Director, A.M.D.A.; AccessAbility; Samarthyam and Svayam.

Over fifteen meetings have taken place, with the Sub-Group discussing and developing the draft taking into account the best practices followed elsewhere in the world. We hope to come out with a very comprehensive and progressive document that addresses the needs of people with different disabilities, may they be physical, cognitive or sensory. It has also been decided that the document will spell out the minimum requirements that must be complied with. Additionally for old buildings being retrofitted, there may be some relaxation, yet ensuring access.

Efforts are being made to write the draft in simple language without too much of technical jargon. The text is complemented with lots of illustrations for easy understanding by all.

The Sub-Group had initially committed a time frame of two months to develop this draft. In spite of regular meetings, it has taken longer, the reason being that to get a quality document extensive discussions are necessary. Once the draft is ready, it will be put in public domain for recommendations from the sector and architects, planners, etc. before it is finalized.

Having Accessibility Standards applicable to the entire nation, according to me, is the first step towards expecting effective change throughout the country, rather than just in major metros like Delhi. If things work out the way they have been planned - that the draft is finalized and M.U.D. is able to make it applicable to the entire nation, then we can expect consistency in the design of accessible spaces and would not be disappointed when a space signposted as being accessible is actually inaccessible, quite like the restrooms at the new Bangalore and Hyderabad Airports.

The fact that M.U.D. is finally developing these Standards is a clear indication that they are rightfully taking responsibility of providing accessibility that till now was considered to be with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Also in a country like ours where there are no professional ‘Access Auditors’, any disabled person becomes an access auditor by virtue of her/his being disabled, with one Standard there is little chance of missing out on important issues while making recommendations for access improvements.

The final Standards would probably need to be adopted by each State in their Building Byelaws unless M.U.D. has other ways and power of getting them enforced.

Developing these Accessibility Standards/Guidelines is certainly a step in the right direction and hopefully would positively impact accessibility in our country in the years ahead.

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