Supreme Court directs important step forward in accessibility for persons with disabilities

In a case participated in by Disability Law Initiative, the Supreme Court on Thursday 24th November 2016, directed the Central and State Governments to make all efforts to ensure that public infrastructure and facilities are accessible to persons with hearing, vision and orthopedic impairment. The directions came in the matter of Rajive Raturi vs. Union of India, argued by Sr. Advocate Mr. Colin Gonsalves of the Human Rights Law Network, assisted by DLI. The Court ordered the Central Government to ensure that empowered committees be set up at the Central and State levels to evaluate and enhance policies and guidelines covering accessibility and to ensure their implementation.

Advocates for the petitioners submitted that the Persons with Disabilities Act mandated that there should be no discrimination towards persons with disabilities in the accessibility of built environment, roads, transport systems, educational institutions and public employment. However, despite the said Act having been in force since 1996, accessibility in India for disabled persons remained largely poor. It was a matter of everyday experience that buildings accessed by the public, bus and railway stations, roads and bridges and public transport vehicles were not adapted for use by blind persons and wheelchair users. Likewise, information and communication services were not accessible to hearing impaired and visually impaired persons. This was also apparent from the Central Government’s own audits of the level of accessibility in important public places. Further, the Act provided for empowered coordination and execution committees at the Central and State levels which were to ensure a barrier-free environment in public places, work-places, public utilities, schools and other institutions. However these committees were either not constituted or were not functioning for several years.

Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, arguing for the Central Government, took the stand that the Government had launched the Accessible India Campaign under the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. Specific targets had been established for accessibility in built environment, transportation systems and information and communication services. As such, the Central Government was making the campaign its platform for ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities all over India and would do the needful in this regard. However, the Court noted that several of the targets set up had already been missed. The Court also expressed displeasure that important statutory committees mandated under the Act were not functioning, and opined that it was these very committees that were to provide the required guidelines and monitor their timely execution by the Central and State Governments. The Court then took note of the Central Government’s assurance that these committees would be constituted and their meetings convened within a short timeframe, and directed that the reports of the committees be placed before the Court from time to time.