Access Denied! Will Intent Translate Into Action For People With Disabilities?

In the very heart of Lucknow’s iconic Buddha Park is Akhilesh, balancing his crutches on the glazed tiles struggling hard to climb the steps of the public toilet to attend nature’s call. “It is not just this facility, but most of the public toilets in this city or I’d say even other cities are also difficult to access for people like me,” says Akhilesh who is working with a vocational training centre for persons with disability.

Barely one kilometre away from Buddha Park at another public toilet near King George Medical College, Dinesh Kumar, a street vendor was sitting helplessly in his wheelchair. A random reality check of various public and community toilets in the city by volunteers, during a week-long campaign to identify accessible and inclusive public toilets, substantiates his observations and experience.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol and the National Policy for Persons with Disability 2006, recognises that Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) are valuable human resources for the country. They seek to create an environment that provides them with equal opportunities as well as the protection of their rights and their full participation in the society. It agrees with the basic principles of equality, freedom, justice and dignity of all individuals that are enshrined in the Constitution of India. The Constitution also implicitly mandates an inclusive society for all, including persons with disabilities. But even after a decade of such commitments and resolutions made by the government at the global and national level, people with disability yearn for the basics – accessibility to public spaces and facilities.

The share of persons with disability in the country’s total population is 2.21%. The highest number of disabled persons (4.1 million or 15.5% of country’s PwD population) is from the State of Uttar Pradesh. The strong commitment of the government towards making the state of Uttar Pradesh Open Defecation Free (ODF) has led to huge investments and mobilisation towards the construction of household and public toilets.

To reach the mammoth target of building 1.55 crore toilets by  October 2, 2018, the state would have had to construct on an average 44,000 toilets every day. The ability to achieve this target was ably demonstrated by the state when a record 3.2 lakh toilets were built within a span of just 17 days in a special countrywide campaign under the Swachh Bharat Mission from September 15 to October 2, 2017.

The state from time to time has issued instructions to ensure that accessibility is included while constructing toilets both at the household level as well as the community level in rural and urban spaces. The chief secretaries of the state on May 28, 2012, and June 10, 2014, also instructed district authorities to ensure accessibility to public spaces and facilities for persons with disability. However, in the rush to meet the targets, care to ensure inclusive design in the construction of toilets seems to be the nowhere in the priority at the ground level till now. In the state capital alone there are 350 community and public toilets with around 3000 seats (still a much lower number than the required), but less than 5% have provisions such as ramps to facilitate access.

“Unavailability of accessible facilities causes a lot of difficulties in the day to day life of Persons with Disabilities,” says Suraj Yadav, who leads Uttar Pradesh Viklang Manch (UPVM), a pan UP collective having a membership strength of 45,000 of PwDs. During a discussion with UPVM members, it emerges that 90% of facilities are inaccessible to Persons with Disabilities especially to tricycle users, visually impaired persons, crutch and wheelchair users. UPVM aims to make accessible toilets as one of its key advocacy demands for its meeting with the chief minister scheduled in December 2017.

The initiatives were taken by the State Swachh Bharat Mission Directorate such as the dissemination of technical manuals on toilet designs for people with disability, conscious effort to train masons how to build PwD friendly toilets and the construction of demo toilets for learning and replication towards promoting inclusive toilets are appreciable. But the mapping of households having persons with disability, provisioning of additional resources towards incentives for toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission (heard there is an ongoing discussion at the Ministry level to increase the incentives for PwD toilets) or dovetailing with other schemes or funds will be critical to ensure that intent translates into affirmative action.

During his message on World Toilet Day, Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation aptly stated that, “Access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation was adopted as one of the targets of Sustainable Development Goals. It is not only about constructing toilets or sewerage. It is about understanding people’s needs and finding safe and sustainable solutions that ensure everyone’s dignity.”

With over 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India. In fact, it would have been fifth most populous country had it been an independent nation, hence a positive change in any indicators under SDGs in Uttar Pradesh will have a significant positive influence on national and global performance with respect to SDGs including Goal#6.

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