Feature

Volume 6 Issue 6 - September 01, 2009

'Ah, Taj!'- Says the disability sector, but still from a distance

Recently, Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) announced that the Taj Mahal has been made accessible. N.C.P.E.D.P. commissioned an access audit to verify this claim. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. takes a look at how the story of Taj Mahal unfolded and how accessible it actually is.

I haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. I have been meaning to though. After all, millions of tourists flock to see this wonder from different parts of the world. Then, one fine morning I read an access audit report on Taj Mahal and realised that 70 million of my countrymen are giving me company. Not because they want to, but because they have been forced to!

It is surprising, no shocking, that the world’s largest democracy having one of the largest disabled population in the world has taken years and decades to even learn of a term called 'accessibility'. And when it did it was more out of accident than intention.

In 2001, Stephen Hawking, world renowned physicist visited India. In a correspondence with Javed Abidi, Honorary Director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.), he expressed his desire to visit Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Jantar Mantar and Qutub Minar. Hawking uses a wheelchair. And it opened nothing short of a Pandora's Box!

Rama Chari, former Senior Programme Officer with N.C.P.E.D.P. had a first hand experience with Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) officials days before Hawking’s visit. She, infact, personally carried a letter from Abidi conveying Hawking’s request.

"I met the Deputy Director General of A.S.I. and he looked at me bewildered. He had not even heard of accessibility or ramps. He was aghast that we could even suggest modifications to a historical monument. All he kept saying was we cannot even touch a brick," she said.

"He said that all they could do was arrange 3 to 4 security guards who could lift him inside!" she added.

N.C.P.E.D.P. then did indepth research on inclusive tourism in the West, where structural modifications were made without ruining the aesthetics. The issue of accessibility attracted great media attention. The media exposed the gaps in A.S.I.'s approach and thinking.

"One particular item that I feel was tremendously forceful was Shekhar Gupta's article in The Indian Express," said Abidi. This particular article laid bare the far too common Indian attitude of pity, charity and welfare and how as a society we fail to see beyond a person's disability. Gupta wondered aloud in his editorial, "What if Hawking would have been an Indian?" He then added boldly, "Thank God he's not, we'd have pitied the poor little genius!"

With media's support, N.C.P.E.D.P. put the requisite pressure. Hawking's desire to visit the Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Humayun's Tomb and Jantar Mantar sent Indian officialdom scuttling to save face. Since all these places are not disabled-friendly, A.S.I. was pushed into making them accessible virtually overnight, something disabled people had been asking for a long time - with no results. A.S.I. and the Institute for the Physically Handicapped (under instructions from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment) built temporary wooden ramps at all the four monuments.

Stephen Hawking came, he saw Qutub Minar but not Taj Mahal and he went back! But not before starting a whole new perspective on accessibility. Soon after his visit, the then Tourism Minster, Ananth Kumar announced grand plans to make all World Heritage Sites in India, including the Taj Mahal, accessible.

There were talks of installing a hydraulic lift at Taj Mahal, but the idea was later shelved. When D.N.I.S. had inquired, the then Director General said that a lot of groups protested against it raising concerns over the sanctity of the place being desecrated due to this move.

Abidi, who has had some very interesting experiences with the Taj - once even a literal showdown with security people when he landed there with measuring tapes to examine the possibility of building ramps, disagreed.

"There are a lot of ways that old, historical structures can be made accessible without ruining the aesthetics," he said.

"After all, how were historical monuments as old as the Colosseum, the Vatican, Buckingham Palace, the Great Wall of China, etc. made accessible?" he asked.

Eight years after that announcement, A.S.I. and the government are patting each other’s back on having made Taj Mahal accessible. The Telegraph, in its May 26 article on this development, reported, "Many people with disabilities who came to see the Taj Mahal could only gaze at it from the entrance. Not any more." And to make that possible, A.S.I. had built nine ramps of different sizes and lengths.

N.C.P.E.D.P. suspected that these claims may be exaggerated. And so it commissioned an access audit. And the results are an eye- opener!

A.S.I. has not been able to pass the basic standards of accessibility. Here are some hard facts. The parking is located approximately 1 k.m. from the complex entrance. There are battery operated vehicles, rickshaws and tangas that are used by visitors to negotiate this distance. None of these vehicles are accessible to people using wheelchairs, who are left with no option but to wheel this distance. The accessible route to the actual monument is around the periphery which is much longer.

"The only accessibility feature that has been provided are a few ramps along the circulation routes. But no ramps have been provided at entrances to the main monuments, i.e., the Taj Mahal, the mosque, the meeting room and the central pavilion," said Shivani Gupta, Director, AccessAbility, who conducted the audit for N.C.P.E.D.P. "There is no consideration for people with sensory disabilities. In fact, even with the ramps, it is difficult to negotiate as they do not merge seamlessly with the ground and handrails have been installed at much lower heights," she added.

There are two steps to the ticket counter and no ramp, thus inaccessible to wheelchair users. The ladies rest rooms, drinking facilities, locker rooms are still not accessible to people with disabilities. The gents’ toilet does have a steep ramp but the designated accessible toilet cubicle is not accessible to wheelchair users. There are no proper signages directing people to the accessible route, neither is there any information in Braille. Moreover, the main monument is still not accessible.

"An orthopaedically disabled person can with difficulty come very close to the main Taj monument, but being able to actually get onto it is still a distant dream," said Gupta.

Rama Chari feels that it is essential for A.S.I. to follow proper accessibility standards. "Who is advising them about accessibility, what standards are they following; these are questions that need to have clear answers," she said.

"There are doubts about how seriously A.S.I. takes the whole issue of accessibility since the Annual Report of A.S.I. does not even mention disability!" she added.

Abidi feels that the few proper ramps that have been put up are a positive step. "There is so much more that could have been done and has not been done," he conceded.

"But I do hope that at least in my life time I will be able to see the Taj Mahal fully accessible to all," sums up Abidi. A wish that is echoed by 70 million others hoping that they do not have to wait till eternity to see this epitome of eternal love.

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