May 15, 2022

Miles to Go: For Dignified Treatment of Disabled Travellers


The more things change, the more they remain the same, said French writer and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

NOTHING can be more apt in describing the situation arising out of the unfortunate incident of the denial of boarding on an IndiGo flight to a teenager with a disability at the Ranchi airport on May 8, 2022.

Ten years back, in February 2012, Jeeja Ghosh, a disability rights activist and frequent traveller, was deboarded from a Spicejet flight. Ironically, she was on her way to speak on disability issues at an international conference in Goa. The crew onboard, unfamiliar with attending to a person with cerebral palsy, reported to the pilot-in-command, who decreed that she is unfit to travel.

Following a hue and cry, the matter was also raised in the Lok Sabha including by the current Kerala Speaker, M B Rajesh. The then minister of civil aviation, late Ajit Singh in a written response on March 21, 2012, said that the “cabin crew observed froth, saliva with traces of blood oozing out of Ms Jeeja Ghosh’s mouth with her hands folded in an abnormal manner and she was also not in a position to respond to the cabin crew’s questions. Accordingly, the matter was reported to the pilot-in-command (PIC) and a decision was taken to de-board Ms Jeeja Ghosh on account of her medical condition”. The minister was just parroting the airline’s version, which was disputed by Jeeja Ghosh saying that though drooling is common, at that point in time there was no drooling, let alone bleeding. To cap it, the doctor who examined her at the airport, after she was deboarded, declared her fit for travelling!

In the current instance also, not only did the IndiGo CEO seek to disgracefully defend the unpardonable action of his staff but went on to argue that the teenager was a security concern. How come, the boy was allowed to board another IndiGo flight the next day, is a question unanswered.

Be that as it may be, the Ranchi incident also indicates the positive change that has come about. According to Manisha Gupta, who through her Facebook post, brought before the entire world the atrocious manner in which the situation was handled also shared how other passengers intervened on behalf of the teenager, with many even citing rules and regulations also a group of doctors travelling on the flight who also declared the teenager fit to fly and took responsibility to attend to the passenger if required on board. This points towards a rising awareness among sections of passengers that was lacking when Jeeja was deboarded, which is welcome.

Though visually impaired passengers now face less harassment this was not the case a few years earlier as is evident from the experience of Mohammed Asif Iqbal who also had to sign an indemnity bond while travelling on Kingfisher Airlines in May 2011 at the Patna airport. A few days prior to this, another visually impaired passenger, Mansuri Shabana, who was travelling with her two small children was deboarded from a connecting flight from Mumbai to Goa citing safety concerns. Again, the airline was the now-defunct Kingfisher. What is intriguing is that the same passenger with her kids had travelled by the same airlines from Ahmedabad to Mumbai.

But the outpourings of anger, followed by petitions, PILs and advocacy has seen remarkable changes being made to the guidelines for “Carriage by Air - Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility” issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) over the years, the latest being in 2021.

The latest guidelines specify that: “Once persons with disability or reduced mobility report at the airport with valid booking and intention to travel, the airline shall provide assistance to meet their particular needs and ensure their seamless travel from the departure terminal of the departing airport up to the aircraft and at the end of the journey from the aircraft to the arrival terminal exit, without any additional expenses”.

The guidelines also mandate that all airlines, airport operators, security, customs, and immigration bureau organisations at the airport shall conduct training programmes, for all personnel engaged in passenger services for sensitisation and developing awareness for assisting persons with disability or reduced mobility as also about negative perceptions and attitudes towards such passengers.

As was evident in this case, the training was not enough and the staff was not sensitised either to the disability or the specific needs of the passenger, let alone negative perceptions. It's not just airline staff, but at times co-passengers have also refused to sit next to a disabled passenger.

IndiGo stands in flagrant violation of not just the DGCA guidelines but also Schedule VI of the Aircraft Rules, 1937. Non-compliance with directives issued under rule 133A (under which the CAR has been issued) constitutes a Category III offence, which is punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or with a fine not exceeding two lakh rupees, or both. Unfortunately, despite repeated offences by various airlines, in not a single instance has the DGCA sought to enforce this provision. However, in the Jeeja Ghosh matter, the Supreme Court did impose a fine of Rs 10,00,000 on Spicejet.

There have been a host of instances where people using prosthetic legs have had to remove them, sometimes in the most undignified manner, for X-Ray scanning; wheelchair users have been asked to get up from their wheelchairs; people wearing callipers and using crutches were subjected to harassment. Since all these come under the domain of the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security, which despite convergence, is an entirely different area, we are not going into it here. Suffice it to say that though some progress has been achieved, much more needs to be done.

Nevertheless, it also needs to be underlined that such humiliation, ill-treatment and discrimination is part and parcel of the daily life of India’s disabled citizens. It is very common to see the disabled being taunted and abused by drivers and conductors when they try to board buses. In many cases, co-passengers refuse to get up and leave the seats reserved for them.  Same with rail travel or other modes of transport. There have been complaints galore of taxi aggregators like Uber refusing to ride disabled passengers.

In the instant case, the staffer may face the brunt, and may even be made the proverbial sacrificial lamb. But she himself may be a victim of limitation, ignorance and lack of training. No amount of on-job training can match what an inclusive education can provide.

Training should commence from the school level, to sensitise children “to promote values of inclusion, tolerance, empathy and respect of diversity”, as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 mandates. The Act also lays down that this should be included in the curriculum of schools, colleges and universities. But is this important mandate being implemented?

It has to be acknowledged that it is a systemic failure. Amends need to be made to rectify the system itself. Piecemeal adjustments won’t suffice. The prompt probe announced by the DGCA is welcome. But is any person with a disability, who will stand impacted by their decision, made part of the committee? ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’ is the slogan disability movements raise throughout the world.

The Modi government’s flagship Accessible India Campaign launched with much fanfare is anywhere but near realising the targets that it had set in 2015. Deadlines keep on extending, with the latest being July 2022, for all the three verticals, of built infrastructure, transport and ICT. Even the mandate of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPD Act) for making all existing public buildings accessible within a period of five years from the date of framing of the rules has not been implemented. Budgetary allocations for these have been constantly falling and now the government spokesmen have even stopped talking about this programme.

In fact, the Supreme Court in the Rajiv Raturi case of 2017, had mandated that all public buildings should be made accessible. But a report compiled by the apex court’s registry on the accessibility of courts paints a very sorry picture. Only 33 per cent of court complexes in the entire country are accessible.

Flagrant violations of the law and various judgements continue with impunity. Recently, the Convergence Energy Services Limited (CESL), which was entrusted the responsibility of inviting tenders for the procurement of 5,585 buses on behalf of state/city bus transport corporations was in violation of all laws and guidelines on accessibility. At least for two city bus services – Kolkata and Surat, it was high floor buses that were being tendered. And this is at a time when according to the central government’s own data only around 7 per cent of public buses in the country are fully accessible.

Bestowing divine status with a “divyang” tag will not alter attitudes and perceptions.