(Civil Writ Petition No. 292/2006 in Supreme Court of India)
This petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India by DLI on behalf of a wheel chair bound student, Ms. Pooja Sharma, who was unable to pursue her studies at the law institute of a nationally recognized deemed university because of lack of adequate facilities and reasonable accommodation of her special needs. In particular, the institution refused to modify the student’s hostel bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair, and also expressed inability to provide a private room for her or make available an assistant when required. The Supreme Court asked the Bar Council of India to submit its views. As an outcome of this case, in September 2011, the Bar Council of India passed a resolution requiring all the Centers of Legal Education (law colleges) in India to make their courses accessible to persons with disabilities. In it’s resolution, the Bar Council of India said, “… the Bar Council mandates as a condition of affiliation, that a minimum of 3% reservation for the differently abled must be implemented in law colleges in India” and “The Council further feels that it is not sufficient to only provide for the reservation of seats for the differently abled. The purpose of reservation would not be served if the law college is not equipped to cater to the different needs of the differently abled student. It is not sufficient to merely provide the same facilities that are provided to other students, as this may result in the differently abled student unable to undertake his or her studies, resulting in the 3% reservation being illusory and not effective.” The Bar Council therefore resolved to add the following provision to its rules governing the minimum infrastructural facilities for law colleges:
“29: Each Centre of Legal Education shall be equipped to provide appropriate facilities in terms of the physical infrastructure, academic infrastructure and any other facilities required for the effective participation of disabled students, teachers and staff in their respective activities.”
(Supreme Court Case, citation: 1999 1 SCC 467.)
In this case going as far back as 1998, the Supreme Court of India took strong recognition of the rights of persons with disabilities to have accessible public facilities. The petitioner, Mr. Javed Abidi, an orthopedic disabled person, argued this case in person. The Petitioner raised both a specific issue regarding accessible air transport for disabled persons, and a general issue regarding implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995.
Specifically, the petitioner argued that orthopedic disabled persons face significant difficulty in making use of air transport facilities and that Indian Airlines, the domestic carrier, should accommodate such passengers by providing “ambulifts” to take such passengers from the ground level on to the aircraft, and aisle wheel chairs to reach their seats. Without such facilities they had to be physically hoisted up into the aircraft and to their seats, resulting not only in tremendous discomfort, but also in embarrassment and loss of dignity for them. In response, the Indian Airlines initially said that providing ambulifts at all major airports in the country would be a very costly affair, and beyond their economic capacity. However, in the course of the hearing and under the watchful eye of the Court, they changed their stand and indicated that ambulifts were being provided for at all major airports, and aisle chairs had already been made available. On the petitioner’s plea, the apex court also directed that Indian Airlines provide concessions in airfares to orthopedic disabled persons with more than 80% disability, despite Indian Airlines’ opposition to this plea.
The petitioner further brought to the Court’s notice that whereas the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, provided for the setting up of Central and State level committees to protect the rights and further the cause of disabled person, these committees had not been set up and the legal provisions for them remained on paper. No sooner did the Court issue notices to the Central and State Governments, than they assured the Court of the steps they were taking to constitute the requisite committees. The Court said, “…we hope and trust that the respective committees will discharge their obligations under the Act so as to achieve the objectives for which the Act had been enacted…”
Disabled persons can draw encouragement from the observations of the Supreme Court of India in this case to further agitate their causes. In it’s judgment, the Court said:
“To create a barrier free environment for persons with disabilities and to make special provision for the integration of persons with disabilities into the social mainstream apart from the protection of rights, provisions of medical care, education, training, employment and rehabilitation are some of the prime objectives of the Act.”, and
“The petitioner himself is an orthopedically impaired person…He appeared in person in this Court and successfully presented his case indicating several infirmities as well as callousness of the different organizations of the State in implementing the provisions of the Act…we cannot but thank the petitioner…which resulted in acceleration of the implementation of different provisions of the Act, not only by the Union Government but also by the State Governments.”
(Delhi High Court orders dated 08.11.2006, 16.03.2007, 21.01.2008 in Civil Writ Petition No. 812/2001)
In January 2001 the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking of Great Britain, a severely disabled person, visited New Delhi and was keen to visit the monuments. Noting the lack of access facilities for persons with disabilities at these monuments, the petitioner Mr. Javed Abidi was instrumental in Archaeological Survey of India’s decision to erect ramps at Delhi’s Qutub Minar, the Jantar Mantar and other historic spots on Mr. Hawking’s itinerary. Following Mr. Hawking’s visit, the petitioner Mr. Abidi filed the instant PIL to bring before the court the problems of access in public buildings and transport facilities in Delhi. The PIL sought directions to the Centre as well as NCT government to make all public places disabled friendly. The High Court by a series of orders directed the public authorities in Delhi such as the Government of National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the Railways, the Airlines, Airport Authorities, and the University Grants Commission (UGC) to make all the public infrastructure and facilities accessible including inter alia installation of ramps, lifts in public buildings, installation of proper audio systems in all public places including roads, construction of accessible toilets for disabled persons, and provision of ambulifts and wheelchairs at the airports. By order dated 08.11.2006, the High Court ordered the airport authorities and the airlines to provide for accessible buses to carry passengers from the terminal building to the aircraft, since the existing buses were outdated and inconvenient for disabled passengers. The Court noted the assurance of Government of NCT, Delhi that all the foot over bridges at important public junctions in Delhi such as those at Maharani Bagh, ITO and ISBT have been provided with the facility of wheel chair and escalator. The Court directed the Railways to provide a detailed specification regarding the provision of inter platform transfer facilities for disabled persons in Categories A and B stations throughout India. By order dated 16.03.2007 the Court ordered the public authorities of Delhi to ensure that the sanction plan for every public building or building where public has to go including places like cinema halls, makes provision for disabled in all respects. The Court directed that the UGC should also impose similar conditions while granting recognition to any college in Delhi and ensure that all facilities as required for by the disabled persons, are given to them, in each college of Delhi University. The Court further prohibited all Airlines as well as the Airport Authority of India from charging disabled passengers for providing wheel chairs and ambulifts. By its order dated 21.1.2008 the Court noted that Section 46 of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 inter alia enjoins upon the appropriate Government and local authorities to provide for ramps in public buildings, adaptation of toilets for wheel chair users, braille symbols and auditory signals in elevators or lifts, ramps in hospitals, primary health centres and other medical care and rehabilitation institutions. The Court disposed of the petition directing the authorities to issue proper instructions to all concerned to ensure that the needful is done in keeping with the letter and spirit underlying Section 46 of the Act. The Court granted liberty to the petitioner to bring to the notice of the competent authority deficiencies, if any, in compliance with the requirement of Section 46 in which event the parties concerned were expected to look into the same and take appropriate steps for removal of deficiencies within a reasonable time.