The Tokyo Paralympics has inspired India; now it’s time to invest in accessible infrastructure

Updated on: Sep 24, 2021

Paralympic medalist Bhavina Patel at a felicitation ceremony in New Delhi | Photo Credit: Ravi Choudhary

Indian para-athletes’ stupendous performance in Tokyo must inspire us to make mobility accessible, affordable, safe and reliable

Apart from the success in Hockey in the years before and after independence, India’s performance at the Olympic Games has not been anything to celebrate, barring a few individual instances. The Paralympic games, with the added stigma of disabilities, failed to capture the public attention it deserved. That is, until now.

The Tokyo Games have changed this dramatically for India, with success at the summer games, and much more at the paralympic games, where India shattered all previous country records. Indian para-athletes have won 19 medals, pushing India to 24th in the medals tally. No wonder then that the exemplary performance of the Indian contingent had the entire country rallying behind them. What’s more, the 2021 Paralympics is special, not just for the record breaking events at the games, but also for the shift in public perception towards over 100 million Indians living with disabilities.

The challenge of accessibility

Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) have to face significant logistical challenges in their daily lives, let alone in sports. Barriers include inaccessible vehicles, bus stops, train stations and even basic footpaths. The logistical challenges faced by para-athletes to get to sporting facilities or avail accessible transportation are significant, not to mention the additional cost, as per Ankur Dhama, a prominent athlete living with blindness.

An acute example of this is the story of Bhavina Patel, who bagged India’s first silver medal in Table Tennis. As a polio survivor, she had to often change two buses, followed by a couple of shared auto-rickshaws and finally cover the last mile, dodging Ahmedabad’s infamous traffic on her crutches just to get to a venue.

Could you imagine the success our para-athletes would have had, if not for these concerns and how much more time, energy and resources could have been channelled towards training and recovery? If you can imagine such a situation, then you understand why mobility systems in India must now start ensuring an enabling ecosystem for all those who live with a disability.

Mobility infrastructure

This change must start at the very basic level of mobility — its infrastructure. Less than 7 per cent of the buses in India are fully accessible for wheelchair users. Many train stations pose accessibility challenges on account of steps and bridges. Intercity trains cannot be boarded by persons living with locomotor disabilities.

Often, public transport becomes inaccessible if one element of the trip chain is not equipped to support the needs of PwDs. As a result, many are forced to opt for a personal vehicle and modify them for accessibility. However, even those who can afford a private vehicle have to jump through multiple hoops to allow themselves to access transportation, which non-disabled individuals take for granted.

Interventions don’t stop at infrastructure alone, and must look at improving the entire value chain of mobility systems. As a start, accessibility considerations need to be factored in right from the design and planning stage of transport projects. Manufacturers should be encouraged to develop and offer accessible vehicles be it buses, cars or two-wheelers through financial incentives or prioritisation in public procurement. There needs to be a robust repairs and maintenance ecosystem to ensure effective upkeep of these vehicles. Moreover, given the multimodal nature of a trip, the interventions should be strategically managed so that improvements are achieved across the trip chain.

Towards accessible transport

Today, India is doubling down to strengthen the existing mobility infrastructure as well as create a future-ready transport network. The National Infrastructure Monetization Pipeline aims to work with private enterprises to upgrade brownfield train stations and airports. Similarly, the 100 lakh crore Gati Shakti Master Plan aspires to boost infrastructure, reduce travel time and improve competitiveness of Indian industry.

We must seize this opportunity to improve accessibility of existing infrastructure and pioneer new accessible transport networks. Safety, Accessibility, Reliability and Affordability for all need to be recognised as the Key Performance Indicators of the entire mobility ecosystem.

The epic run of Indian para-athletes in Tokyo has put the spotlight on the drive, resilience and indomitable spirit of Indians living with a disability. The games will inspire generations to take up para-sports and for people living with disabilities to rightly feel that no ceiling exists for them.

But to ensure that this momentum is sustainable in the long run, we must create an enabling environment, which starts with ensuring that the way we all move is accessible, affordable, safe and reliable. The motto of Sugamya Bharat Sashakt Bharat (Accessible India Strong India) must guide India as we march ahead to build a mobility ecosystem of the future.

The writer is the Head of Accessibility and Inclusion at the Ola Mobility Institute

Published on September 24, 2021
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