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What is India’s disability law; how accessible are govt buildings to PwD?

Context- The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) of India has issued an order to its regional offices to make all public buildings accessible to people with disabilities. This includes the provision of lifts with audio announcements and visual displays, and the appropriate display of emergency evacuation routes for persons with disabilities, including signage in Braille. This order is an effort to comply with a law that was enacted almost seven years ago and guidelines for universal accessibility that were published by the government over 16 months ago.

What is India’s disability law?

  • The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which was enacted in India, is in alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and came into force in 2008.
  • The Act replaced the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995 and came into effect in April 2017. It mandates the central government to establish and periodically review guidelines and standards for public buildings based on the latest scientific knowledge and technology.
  • The first set of guidelines, known as the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for Persons With Disability and Elderly Persons, was published in March 2016.
  • These guidelines were reviewed during the Covid-19 pandemic by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), and a team of experts from IIT-Roorkee.
  • On October 18, 2022, the central Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs notified an updated document, the Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India, 2021. This document provides the latest standards for ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities.

What does the law mandate for public buildings?

  • Rule 15 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules, 2017, derived from the PwD Act, mandates the accessibility of the physical environment, transport, and information and communication technology. All establishments must comply with the standards in the Act, which were the 2016 harmonised guidelines for public buildings.
  • Last year, Rule 15 was amended to mandate compliance with the 2021 harmonised guidelines. These comprehensive guidelines, spanning 428 pages, cover everything from the planning and tendering of building projects to the specifications for various accessibility features like ramps, grab rails, lifts, and toilets.
  • The guidelines recommend incorporating universal accessibility in the site planning and detailed working drawings of the project, and they also cover the implementation, evaluation, and maintenance stages.
  • All building plans must adhere to these guidelines and standards, and existing buildings must be made accessible within five years.

What has been done since the guidelines were notified?

  • The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) recently issued an instruction to its regional offices, via an Office Memo on February 1, seeking compliance with two specific provisions in the 2021 guidelines: audio announcements in lifts and marking of evacuation routes for people with disabilities.
  • However, states have yet to incorporate these harmonised guidelines into their building by-laws. The National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) has been advocating for this incorporation and has held workshops for stakeholders.
  • They have developed training modules, procured instruments, and created Information Education and Communication (IEC) content to ensure inclusion at all stages of project development and implementation. Over 1,000 stakeholders in more than 30 cities have been trained by NIUA.

What is the status of accessibility in public buildings?

  • The Accessible India Campaign was launched by the Centre in 2015 with the goal of making public buildings, transportation, and websites accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Every sector and Ministry were given targets to enhance the accessibility of government buildings by adding features like ramps and accessible toilets.
  • Access audits were conducted in 1,671 buildings across 48 cities in the states and Union Territories. The Centre received financial proposals for retrofitting 1,484 buildings, of which work has been sanctioned in 1,314 buildings.
  • As of December 13, 2023, 623 buildings across 20 states have been retrofitted, as informed by the Social Justice Ministry to the Rajya Sabha.
  • Additionally, 2,839 state government buildings have been identified for retrofitting using the states’ own funds.

What do users and activists say?

  • People with Disabilities (PwDs) and activists have expressed concerns that the 2016 and 2021 accessibility guidelines have not been implemented effectively. No state has incorporated these guidelines into their building by-laws, and the issue of accessibility has not been adequately addressed.
  • Experts have pointed out a lack of awareness and accountability among those responsible for implementing these guidelines, particularly the engineers of public works departments.
  • Rama Chari, Director of the Diversity and Equal Opportunity Centre, highlighted that the implementation of accessibility standards has been inconsistent and haphazard, with insufficient budget allocation and lack of monitoring and sensitisation.
  • For instance, tactile paths at airports are often blocked by trolleys, rendering them unusable for PwDs. The CPWD’s memo is considered vague and could lead to unnecessary resource wastage.
  • Dr Satendra Singh, founder of Doctors with Disabilities and faculty member at Delhi’s GTB Hospital, noted that while funds for retrofitting projects are available, many states and cities have not applied for them.
  • He emphasized that those responsible for implementing the standards lack sensitivity and suggested that punitive action may be necessary to effect change.

Conclusion- While India has made legislative strides towards improving accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) through the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and subsequent guidelines, the implementation has been inconsistent and slow. The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) has recently issued instructions to ensure compliance with specific provisions. However, activists and PwDs argue that there is a lack of awareness, sensitivity, and accountability among those responsible for implementing these guidelines.

Despite the availability of funds for retrofitting projects, many states and cities have not applied for them. Experts suggest that without punitive action and a more concerted effort to incorporate these guidelines into state building by-laws, the goal of universal accessibility may remain unachieved. This highlights the need for a more proactive approach towards ensuring accessibility and inclusivity in public infrastructure.

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