By Namratha Murugeshan
2.21 per cent of the total population of India’s 121 crores people are deemed to be persons with disabilities. This amounts to about 2.68 crores persons with disabilities, of which 31 per cent live in urban areas. Yet the current articulations of accessibility, with its focus on creating barrier-free design, fail to capture and understand the complex diversity of persons with disabilities, their varied needs and uses of urban space.
Barrier-free design fails to account for diversity in gender, age, social and economic background that affect accessibility. To account for this diversity and to make a case for the adoption of the more progressive Universal Design approach, the white paper by Vidhi titled 'Beyond Reasonable Accommodation: Making Karnataka’s Cities Accessible by Design to Persons with Disabilities', proposes several legal and policy changes which can be implemented in urban spaces to ensure inclusive planning.
The white paper categorises urban spaces as built or physical environment, mobility and transportation, and information and communication technology (ICTs). Within this, accessibility standards are often limited to only physical spaces and concern only visible disabilities, often overlooking invisible disabilities and access to other spaces such ICTs, which are just as essential.
The planning and design of such urban spaces often do not consider persons with disabilities as users and thus, fail to account for their needs. Even at times when disability is taken into account, there is lack of a cross-disability perspective, which often results in unintended exclusion of various users. A cross-disability perspective ensures that accessibility features attuned with the needs of one type of disability do not become a barrier for persons with another type of disability.
While the right to the city is meant for all, the existing conception of urban planning does not create opportunities for participatory and representative planning. This has resulted in cities being designed for, and being accessible only to a part of the population. This prompts the need for a feminist disability perspective which ensures that those with vulnerabilities – women, children, elderly and persons with disabilities are centered in the city planning process, which in turn ensures that urban planning takes into account the needs of all types of users.
The white paper provides a comprehensive overview of the legal framework at the international, national, state and municipal level that govern the rights of persons with disabilities and matters that affect their accessibility to urban spaces. At the international level, the white paper focuses on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Goal 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, 2015 and the New Urban Agenda, 2016.
At the national level, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, acts as a foundational statute that guarantees the progressive realisation of rights of persons with disabilities. The Urban and Regional Development Plans: Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI) Guidelines; the National Urban Transport Policy, 2014; the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for Persons with Disabilities and Elderly Persons, 2016 (and as revised in 2021); and the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites, 2019 provide for the legal norms to be adhered to in the realisation of said rights.
While the laws and policies affecting accessibility standards usually originate at the national level, their adoption and implementation falls within the mandate of the state government, and state and municipal level agencies and authorities.
Hence, within the State of Karnataka and for the city of Bengaluru, it would be the Directorate of Town and Country Planning for Karnataka, the Bangalore Development Authority and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (Bengaluru’s Urban Local Body) among other agencies, that would be responsible for issuing bye-laws, preparing master plans and other rules and policies that lay down the specifications for accessibility.
The white paper suggests specific amendments to the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961; the Bangalore Development Authority Act, 1976; the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act, 1976; the Karnataka Municipalities Act, 1964 and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Act, 2020. These amendments are recommended to bring about systemic legal reforms that encourage inclusive and participatory planning and representation of persons with disabilities.
The white paper recognises the need for periodic review of existing accessibility standards and recommends audits to be carried out by empaneled professionals including persons with disabilities for these standards after consulting all relevant stakeholders. It also recognises the need for building awareness, sensitisation, training and capacity building that is to be undertaken at different levels of government to ensure that accessibility is adopted as a norm in the urban planning process.
The white paper emphasises on the need to adopt Universal Design as a foundational principle keeping in mind the necessity of actively involving local participants in the planning and design of their city. The benefits of such an approach not only extends to centering persons with disabilities but it also significantly reduces the overall vulnerabilities that our urban spaces create for the entire population. While the laws examined in the white paper are specific to Karnataka, the recommendations are applicable to and implementable across Indian cities to create inclusive urban spaces for everyone.
Namratha Murugesan is a Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
Vidhispeaks is a fortnightly column on law and policy curated by Vidhi. The views expressed are of the fellow and do not reflect the views of Vidhi or Bar & Bench.