Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Inclusivity - thy name is not India

Other countries are more subtle about keeping out people with locomotor disabilities. They make sure there are no ramps and a flight of steps is the only way to get in; so if you are on a wheel-chair, tough luck! Here, though, there are places where ramps are provided, but at ridiculous gradients. (If there are ten steps, just knock off a small portion width-wise and make that part into a ramp.) Even with my power-driven wheel-chair, I can't dream of making it; the users of manual wheel-chairs can just forget about it. But India is a league apart. We Indians with disabilities can proudly lay claim to having faced the following forms of discrimination:

  1. The government, in its hurry to rush through a `Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill' which was riddled with flaws and violations of the UNCRPD, initiates a `lathi-charge' on a group of blind people who were peacefully protesting the attempts to pass the bill in a hurry. 
  2. Pilots of private airlines did not want to take an unescorted passenger with cerebral palsy, never mind that she was going to lecture at a conference she had been invited to. (See here.).
  3. Night-clubs in Mumbai blatantly keeps out a disabled person (See here.)
  4. Restaurants in Delhi deny entry of a guest in a wheelchair, even using some force to stop him from trying to enter the place (See here.).

Let us see how the authorities have reacted to these acts of brazen discrimination:

  1. The police reaction is best described  here and here 
  2.  "I have taken suo moto cognisance of the matter and issued notices to Spicejet and DGCA directing them to explain within 30 days as to what action they have taken to compensate Jeeja Ghosh (the victim) and also to prevent recurrence of such incidents," said Chief Disabilities Commissioner PK Pincha. See here
  3. The DNA of 17/01/14 says this about the incident: Legal experts have opined that the club administration had committed a blunder  by denying entry to Chandran. Advocate Jamshed Mistry said, “A night club is supposed to be a public place for  amusement. There is no question of stopping someone on the ground  of being on a wheelchair. When his (Chandran) friends had booked a table and had paid for  his entry, then the club had no rights to stop him. It was wrong on the part of the staff  to suggest that they lift him. If Chandran wants, he can lodge a complaint with the office  of the chief commissioner for persons with disabilities against the discrimination  meted out to him.” 
  4. Govt. of Delhi has found Keya, DLF Promenade, guilty of Disability Discrimination in its inquiry! See here.

As Stevie Wonder says in one of his militant songs You haven't done nothing!

Some of my activist friends on Facebook wanted to know what matter of penalty should be meted out to Keya and such offenders. Here are some suggestions that could go a long way in sensitising people towards PWD:

  • Have their entire establishment undergo an audit by access specialists such as Shivani Gupta and Anjlee Agarwal.
  • Ensure that they hire a minimum number of PWD on a regular basis
  • Have their front-office staff undergo a sensitisation programme

And finally, as access specialists like Shivani and Anjlee are too few and far between, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment should arrange for such experts to help design and conduct sessions where architects and others could be trained into transforming exclusive environments into inclusive ones based on principles of universal design, who in turn could educate others and start on the arduous journey towards making ours a barrier-free and inclusive environment that does not disable people.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Just as if we had never done this before

For several months now, members of my group have been asked to perform audits of the `model roads' where the Chennai Corporation has been trying to render the pavements usable fo pedestrians: Loyola College Road, Besant Nagar 2nd Main Road, Conran Smith Road, Police Commissioner's Office Road, Pantheon Road, SIET College Road, ... Of late, we have been concentrating on this last road, officially called K.B. Dasan Road. We had a big slogan-shouting and human chain event on it on December 3rd, the World Disabled Day. And we told people there we will come again periodically, especially including the 3rd of the next month, etc., to see if all our `sensitising` exercises had borne any fruit at all.

We went there again last week-end, armed with our hand-outs, drafts of model signs indicating that vehicles parked on the pavements would be towed away, etc., people from the Corporation Office located on that road itself and traffic police with loudspeakers trying to announce that pavements are meant for pedestrians and should be cleared. We had even informed friends in the Press so that our efforts would be publicised. And indeed our Press friends did not disappoint, as evidenced by this report next morning in `The Hindu'.

But there the good news ended. The pavements looked exactly the same as they had on December 2nd. Here is a quick run-through of some photographs documenting our experience that morning. As we started moving east from the SIET College gate, we ran into Domino's Pizza with its fleet of two-wheelers blocking the pavement.

And poor Smitha couldn't even get past these mopeds by getting down to the road, risking life and limb at the possible harm from speeding vehicles whizzing by; reason: the omnipresent two-wheeler parked in the way by  yet another inconsiderate driver whose mind must be where the `sun don't shine'.

 By now, about 150 minutes past the time we had agreed on meeting, some traffic police had come and we asked them to follow or come along with us so they could see our problems. The first one was caused by the wiring for the lamp-posts in a bright orange plastic tube that uncompromisingly guarded the pavement.

Then there was this example

to show that there could also be drivers of four-wheelers and bicycles with their minds up in that same dark place. And given the various marginalised sections of Indian cities, there are many who have to set up shop

on the pavements simply because they have very little option.

But where I draw a line is at the not quite-so-marginalised using the pavements as extensions

of their parking lots or show-windows. I will be glad to offer 10 to 1 odds on this being exactly the same scenario you will find a week later at this Ford Service Station or at the Sangeetha restaurant on the opposite side of the road which I did not have the cool to photograph because I was so mad at the attitude of the owners of cars and two-wheelers which were cavalierly parked infront of the restaurant and too intent on giving them a piece of my mind. Nor is it much more comforting when a hospital, which should be concerned with such things as being able to move patients in stretchers or wheelchairs, exhibits this behaviour at which all poor Smitha can do is scratch her head in despair:

Never mind, next month, I'll get enough photographs - including Sangeetha, for sure - and then present our case to the traffic police. I am convinced that with our total lack of civic sense, nothing will change unless people are threatened by police levying hefty fines or towing away their vehicles. With high probability, these same cars and two-wheelers will be continuing in their merry antisocial ways, blocking these same spots!

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A nation of effing rapists

We can proudly boast of being the nation with the highest number of men indulging in unnatural acts of brutal violence. Here is what the Times of India says of the most recent manifestation of this depravity:

Unidentified men raped and brutalized a 28-year-old mentally-challenged woman before killing her at Bahu Akbarpur in Haryana's Rohtak district on Sunday last.

The woman's body was found without key organs on Wednesday along with sticks, stones and condoms stuffed into her private parts three days after she went missing.

The brutality is throwback to the Delhi's Nirbhaya case, which shocked the country and led to radical changes in laws to end crimes against women.

Police said the Rohtak woman's body was decomposing when autopsy was conducted on it at Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGIMS) in Rohtak on Thursday.

PGIMS's forensic medicines department head Dr S K Dhatterwal said he has supervised or conducted around 30,000 autopsies, but has never seen such brutality in his 29-year career.

He said two stones were inserted into the slain woman's anus. "Her face was eaten by animals; her lungs and heart were found missing. Also, her skull had fractured and there were injury marks on both her thighs and chest.''

Doctors took five hours to conduct the autopsy. "There was a 16cm long and 4cm wide stick-like article in her vagina. We presume that a longer stick was used and it may have broken inside her. We also found a number of condoms in her vagina," said Dhatterwal.

Police said the woman belonged to Nepal's Vardia district and had been under treatment in Haldwani. She had come to Rohtak a few months back to visit her sister, who works as a domestic help in the city.

A few days before this, the Bangalore newspapers carried a srory of how a man had taken a three year old girl into a shed, raped her and then killed her there before very calmly walking out. There are even blurred photographs showing him leading the unsuspecting and innocent child by the hand, and then walking out alone. Not long before that, Bangalore reported instances of teachers having raped students inside the school premises on several occasions.

In fact, it is a safe bet that if you picked a random paper from a random Indian city, you would be sure to find a story of such bestiality, with varying levels of details of the horror. I have quoted the TOI report verbatim, and talked about the fate of girl children in Bangalore, to convey the scale of desperation and depravity of these monsters: from a mentally ill woman to a defenseless child, they pick their victims from all strata of women.

In just 75 years, the land has ignominously slid from from the zenith of espousing non-violence as a form of freedom fighting to the nadir of laying claim to being a land of bestial effing rapists.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Am I being heard?

A month and a half back, I wrote on my ongoing woes with domestic air travel. Since I had specifically named Jet Airways in that post, I decided to write to their customer care email address and give them a link to my blog-post. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from a lady in Mumbai asking if there was any way she might be able to help. I told her that I wanted to meet someone senior in the organisation who might be able to give me some piece of paper regarding the entitlements of a person traveling with a personal wheelchair, so that I would not need to go through the same ridiculous objections again and again. As she was in Mumbai and I was in Chennai, she asked somebody in their Chennai office to get in touch with me. When that Chennai contact called me, and I said I wanted to meet as senior a person as possible in Jet Airways, she wanted to know why. When I expressed a desire to carry a piece of paper signed by such an authority as to precisely what were the entitlements of a person with disability traveling with his personal wheelchair, she told me that such a document could not be given, but that I could inform her whenever I planned on flying on their airline.

I flew from Chennai to Bangalore a few days ago on Jet Airways, and was surprised to receive an email from them asking me to tell them about my experience of the flight I had just taken. I thought I might as well put that up on my blog, too! The first false note was struck at check-in when the lady at the counter told us our baggage was overweight - because she included the weight of my wheelchair which had to be checked in. After the same discussion we have had innumerable times at innumerable aiports, we were allowed to conince her that airlines are obliged to transport such assistive devices at no extra cost to the passenger. The next hiccup involved the seats we were allotted. There were two passengers who had needed to be brought in a wheelchair to the craft; and both of us were seated in row 15 - bang in the middle of the plane, so that we had to walk some amount till we could get to our seat. I do not know why this was necessary, since I have been seated in the second row from the back in the past. Is it so hard to have a uniformly applied, and sensitively designed set of practices which would minimise the hardships/inconveniences that persons with disability have to face when they fly?

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Keep running to stay in the same place

I was struck by the quite amazing similarity between different aspects of my life since I was diagnosed with multiple slerosis a dozen years ago. Thus, consider the following list, and the parallels between them that I wish to illustrate:

(a) the actual onset of the disease and my ongoing attempts ever since, to cope with it;
(b) the sensitivity of people/organisations towards people with disabilities and the attempts of a group of people whom I have joined in continually ongoing efforts to make a dent in centuries of indifference;
(c) the insensitivity and power-mongering among `leaders of the disability sector'  and their (non-) reactions to attempts at raising levels of inclusivity;
(d) the lethargy of government officials allegedly in charge of `social justice and empowerment',  their reactions to attempts at raising levels of inclusivity, and their total lack of comprehension of what they are supposed to be doing.

And now for the `parallels':

(a) The ability levels of my limbs, particularly the left leg and left hand, have been steadily declining (although I am happy to note that the rate of detioration is not as rapid as it might have been). I have been undergoing physiotherapy for about an hour, thrice a week, for the last 12 years, and trying to save the other days of the week as allowance for flagging energy levels and feeling fatigued almost all the time. And it is as if I never did anything: there is NO improvement in my condition. The lesson seems to be: I must do all those things to at least maintain the status quo, unpleasant as it may be.

(b) There is total lack of sensitivity or awareness of the general public as far as the need for an inclusive and barrier-free environment which could facilitate independent living of people who might be elderly or have some manner of disability. The hurry to take care of one's own needs always eclipses the rights of the fellow-man. Thus, one always sees people parking their cars or motor-cycles in a manner which is bound to inconvenience others. So much so that the City Corporation of Chennai has taken it upon itself to provide wider footpaths with cut-aways which will enable a wheel-chair user, for instance, to (a) use the pavement, and (b) get off from the pavement and down to the road, and vice versa. A group of my friends, calling themselvs the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA), has been roped in by the Corporation to do `audits' of the pavements where they have been working. Several week-ends, we have gone with groups of volunteers, with our wheelchairs and crutches and white canes(*), distributing pamphlets to residences and retail outlets, asking them to ask their visitors/clients to not use these ramps to get their cars or motor-cycles onto the pavements and park them right across the pavements. Every week-end, it is the same scene and same story: people say `first you ask all the others to remove their vehicles; then I'll remove mine' or `I'm parking it for just two minutes; then I'll take it away'. It is as if the past week-ends' exercises had not taken place at all!

((*) In order to counter the oft-repeated and ridiculous questions such as `but how many wheel-chair users do you see?', we have to show we exist - not that it does a fat lot of good!)

(c) I have been crying myself hoarse in this blog about attempts to `pass the RPWD Bill of 2014'. The point is that there are no laws `with teeth' concerning rights of PWD in India, in spite of our having been one of the first signatories of the UNCRPD, and an attempt was made, after secret negotiations between the `leaders' of some Disability Rights Groups in Delhi and the leaders of the Congress party in the dying days of its last tenure of power in Delhi, to hurriedly push through some legislation on a horribly mangled Indianised adaption of tghe UNCRPD. Fortunately these secret and self-serving dealings were discovered just in time and a big hue-and-cry was made by many right thinking Disability Groups to have this almost-born Bill handed over to a Standing Committee for review after the elections were over and the new Government took over. Not long ago, we heard that this Standing Committee was seeking submissions from interested parties regarding this bill. You can be sure the DRA and many of its members sent in such submissions, with pleas that they be allowed to make personal submissions before the Committee took any decisions. About a month ago, we heard that the Standing Committee was going to conduct its hearings, and heard two days later that these hearings had taken place; upon inquiry one finds out that the people invited to present their views were the same `leaders' from Delhi who had failed in their first attempt to push through their butchered version of the UNCRPD, and only something like two of 15 people invited for those hearings were from outside Delhi! After DRA again made some noises on sicial media, etc., we were told that the Standing Committee would be `touring around India' soliciting views of interested parties from other cities such as Chennai. And the latest news is that the Standing Committee will conduct a meeting in Chennai on Jan 29th, possibly also visit Bangalore (according to information apparently from Javed Abidi, one of the `leaders' in Delhi earlier alluded to, who always seems to be privy to such information) and have a `round table meeting' in Delhi on Jan 31st to finalise the findings. This ridiculous lip service to democratic functioning, and tendency to finally letting only Javed and his henchmen in Delhi decide the running of all matters pertaining to PWD, is further proof of the utter irrelevance of well-meaning efforts of other Groups like DRA fighting for Disability Rights.

(d) One reads reports in the newspapers with sickening regularity of the indignities that airlines subject PWD to - from deplaning a passenger with cerebral palsy who had already completed boarding formalities only because the pilot took one look at her and decided that she was a threat to the security of `his passengers', to Air India misplacing the wheelchair that had been checked in by a paraplegic, and not make alternative arrangements for her until some 55 hours after having deposited the poor passenger on foreign soil and letting her try and come up with make-shift solutions and manging on her own without her wheelchair. The DGCA has done precious little to improve the plight of PWD in Civil Aviation. The Ministry of `Social Justice' demands the several million PWD of the land to get a certificate to prove their disability in order to avail of such minimal concessions as they may be entitled to - the only problem is that these certificates can only be obtained in specific government offices which are all notoriously inaccessible - for example, in a third floor office in a building without elevators. Precious little has been done to even utilise such funds as they have been allotted to enforce the laws of the land in making public spaces and facilities accessible and barrier-free.

Bottom line: despite your most well-meaning efforts, you are dealt placebos with great fanfare, while the disease corrodes the innards.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The king is naked

I want to put on a different cap in writing this post which has nothing to do with disability. I want to talk about something that has been bothering me at the scientific elite of India not putting up their hand to make some kind of statement when there is some development, where their scientific acumen is surely called upon to take a (and preferably, the right) stand. In fact, I tried to publish this in  journal run by one of the academies and the bottom line of the response I received from the editor was: I believe as written now, it is not suitable for publication in a science journal, but a proactive re-writing will communicate your thoughts more effectively. 

As I get to decide what I can post in my blog, here is an updated version of that rejected piece:

I do not think it would be unfair to say that most Indian scientists have always had a very high opinion of their calling. The number of times I have walked the corridors of, and the number of  cups of coffee I have drunk at, such august high temples of science as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata and the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, have given me enough ammunition to say without a shadow of a doubt that `we scientists' are quite pleased with our lot. Not only that, we sneer condescendingly at members of the corporate world who sully their hands with the dirty business of money. We speak contemptuously of politicians. The aim of this article is to question our right to hold such exalted opinions of ourselves.

First, let me attempt a quick overview of how we spend our time and the taxpayer's money that is lavished on our `institutes of national importance' by our government. Depending on whether one works in a `research institute' or a `teaching institution', one is expected to spend one's time in doing research and in teaching/guiding Ph.D. students, or teaching students at one of several possible levels (B.Sc., M.Sc., etc.). The former are the more prestigious and better paying places (with better facilities), and they are the first choice of the more highly regarded scientists. Besides the above truly academic work, an undue amount of one's time is spent on administrative work, and how many such activities come your way is used as a sort of `impact factor' of how highly you are regarded.

A typically accepted form of evidence of such high regard is how many of our three Science Academies include you among their Fellowship. With such recognition comes promotions and in return for such recognition one spends most of the rest of one's academic life in one of the following activities: nominating younger colleagues to the fellowship of such academies, and later, serving on various committees of these academies which deliberate on how to identify a small subset of the set of nominees who will be elected into the fellowship of the academy in question. Depending on how highly you are regarded, you may be asked to help with the process of such filtration at the `sectional committee level' where a mathematician, such as I, will help decide which of our young mathematicians deserve to get into a `short-list', or you may be deciding at the level of the Executive Council of the Academy as to whether a mathematician from the short-list put up by his sectional committee is more deserving of the honour of being elected into the fellowship than, say, a biologist in the short-list put up by his sectional committee. (The kind of scrapping that goes on at these meetings, and the dubious logic by which a biological apple is compared favourably with a mathematical lemon, has to be seen/heard to be believed!) If successful, the poor fellow will be consigned to a life of playing this game all over, again and again, ad nauseum.

I have long felt that a more important role to be played by the various Indian Academies of Science should be to take the initiative and send strong and unambiguous signals in matters where the onus of leadership should be clearly be on the people we acknowledge as our top scientists. The point I wish to make is that while all of us sadly shake our heads at the unhappy state of affairs in our country, we ourselves seem to do precious little which is really constructive - nor do we take a strong stand and/or provide leadership when an issue comes up which requires some amount of scientific acumen to understand/evaluate. Let me give some instances to back my case:

  1. When there was a big furore over the introduction of astrology into the curricula of our universities, and when attempts were afoot to make the learning of Vedic Mathematics a serious part of the mathematical curriculum, none of the academies stood up to call a spade the spade that was begging to be called a bloody shovel.
  2. The exercise that our academies went through and the eventual document that was brought out on the desirability or otherwise of accepting the introduction of genetically modified vegetables, left many of us quite embarrassed to be known as scientists.
  3. Newspapers are periodically full of accusations and rumours freely using words like plagiarism, when some of the names being bandied about are those of past Directors of some of our most reputed research institutions and past presidents of some of our science academies.
  4. Leaders of our country go around talking about how our scriptures show that, even several thousand years ago,  we were adept at performing plastic surgery, as well as designing planes which could fly between countries or even between planets, and this pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo even extends to the scientific sessions of the `Indian Science Congress' with people `presenting papers' on such scientific anachronisms.

I realise I am putting my head in the lion's mouth, but somebody should put up their hand and mention the `nudity of the king'. The mere fact of my living a cushy life working at an institute funded  extremely well by the Department of Atomic Energy should really impose no constraints on what views I may personally hold regarding Kudankulam or the INO project. Just because some of the names bandied about as in point 3. above - possibly for `trivial' reasons - are among the most influential in Indian science today, that does not mean I should be wary of saying that the bigger the scientists, the greater will be the import of their saying `relieve me of all decision-making responsibilities until my name is cleared of this alleged infraction'.

Please do not get me wrong; I am not saying so-and-so was guilty of such-and-such. All I am saying is that it would be great `leadership by example' if such people can say `I resign from all these prestigious positions until all innuendo or potential blots on my name or integrity as a scientist
has been unconditionally wiped out'. Only then will we begin to have the moral ground to question the Jayalalithaas, Rajas, Kanimozhis and Gadkaris of our political scene!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

When will this trauma cease?

This is an open letter to the Director General of Civil Aviation as well as to the airport staff of Jet Airways and other private airlines. Can you please evolve a formula whereby I do not have to re-live the same trauma almost every time I fly. Unfortunately, that is the only way I can travel - not being able to get into trains or buses because of the ubiquitous steps that refuse entry to my wheelchair.

I must have taken more than a hundred flights with my wheelchair. The problem, you see, is that I use a battery-operated power-driven wheelchair. The DGCA as well as Jet Airways both make statements on their home pages of how people who need to use their own wheelchairs may do so provided they do not have spillable batteries. I have gone thrugh the same routine ad nauseum with our airlines, explaining that my wheelchair operates on a dry lithium battery, and that in fact, we always remove the key of the battery as well as the joy stick that operates the wheelchair before checking in my wheelchair, and that we have flown innumerable number of flights in this fashion, and yet, we often come up against these same oddball objections: (a) I am sorry but you must disconnect/open the battery; or (b) you need to pay so much money since your check-in baggage (including the wheelchair) exceeds the permissible weight - in spite of the home pages of both DGCA and Jet Airways clearly stating that people with mobility problems may have their wheelchairs carried by the free of charge! More than once, after we think everything has been satisfactorily explained, somebody had stopped us and insisted on my wife accompanying them to the wheelchair to `help disconnect the battery', and she did not get back before the airline staff started asking me to go ahead to the craft, as it is getting late, and that `she will join you' later. Given the efficiency they display with the handling of the wheelchair, I do not want to give them the chance to whisk me away, leaving my wife behind!

At the last leg of my flight, for the second ever time in my flying memory, we were permitted to collect the wheelchair from the hold of the craft, right on the tarmac, and use that to go to the arrival lounge. Also, on another flight I had to take this time, I saw, to my horror, the wheelchair come rattling down the luggage belt and crash into the bottom. It is not surprising that my wheelchair is not functional  now and has gone to the factory to get fixed up so I can drive it again. The machine just stopped working due to some loose connections caused by the airlines staff disconnecting all the connections between the battery and the motor, joy-stick controls, etc.

Is it too much to hope for, to ask to be issued a certificate by the DGCA or the airline concerned, stating that transporting my wheelchair is not a hazard, and that random yanking out of wires leads to great inconvenience and difficulties, as well as unnecessary anxiety - and most importantly, one which cannot be ignored by the airport security saying `their information/directive' demands that the wheelchair be subjected to theiir manhandling. Surely, it is not acceptable that I have to spend a few thousand rupees every time I get back home to get my friendly mechanic try and undo the damage suffered by the wheelchair.