Article by : Abhijit Murugkar, Accessibility Consultant and Founder of Designbridge Foundation, a non profit working in the field of accessibility of built environment

The city of Pune aims to transform itself into a world class city, achieving a better quality of life in a sustainable environment through economic growth and citizen participation, while retaining its unique heritage and cultural diversity. This transformation is likely to happen under the  Smart Cities initiative of the Govt. Of India. 100 cities in India are gearing themselves up for taking up this challenge of transformation into a smart city for the future. This initiative is bound to give an impetus to infrastructure projects and unprecedented boom in built environment creation in Pune.

As India moves towards rapid urbanization and experiences tremendous growth in the built environment, it is also the right time to pause, and set certain standards related to accessibility of built environment and its effective implementation and monitoring. A huge opportunity to build also means a huge opportunity to  BUILD it RIGHT . Even after 21 years of passing the Persons with disabilities act 1995, the condition of accessibility in built environment remains dismal in India, to say the least. This huge opportunity of  Building it Right , in other words means that as our cities grow, they should be inclusive and accessible for our future generations. Hostile built environments no longer should disable a person, and prohibit the person from living a dignified and productive life.

There is a misconception that  Accessibility comes at a big cost. Based on a small survey and analysis by the Designbridge Foundation, the cost of including provisions for accessibility work out to be a mere 1 to 1.2 % of the total project cost.  Statistics suggest that the cost of inaccessibility in India is 8.5 % of GDP.  In simple language, it means that allocating 1 % of a project cost for making it accessible can create huge employment opportunities for people with disabilities, who in turn can contribute to India GDP to the tune of 8.5 %.  So the cost of not doing anything about accessibility is much high than the cost of providing accessible built environment.

The recently launched  Accessible India Campaign  by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Govt. Of India aims to address these concerns related to built environment, and targets to convert 50 % of government buildings in 10 most important cities / towns in all states in India into accessible buildings by July 2019 in a phase-wise manner. But making the buildings in public sector accessible alone is not sufficient. 90 % of built environment is owned and managed by private sector. Unless the private sector self regulates or is mandated to comply with accessibility norms, this exercise of creating accessible built environments will have limited impact on the lives of people with disabilities.

The private sector owns and manages housing, commercial offices, IT parks, hotels, restaurants, malls, multiplexes, family entertainment centres, amusement parks, hospitals, schools and higher educational institutions, banks and all other typologies of buildings. All these buildings need to be brought under the ambit of accessibility norms compliance. A mechanism for strong enforcement is the need of the hour to make this happen.  This change cannot happen voluntarily. Unless the cost of non-compliance is elevated, expecting all stake holders to voluntarily comply with the accessibility norms is an unrealistic idea. A strong political will, combined with stringent accessibility norms and compliance guidelines by statutory bodies and high cost of non compliance alone will yield the desired result.

Discrimination has no place in the cities of the future, and the only way forwards towards creating accessible cities and built environment is by bringing about a paradigm shift in the mindsets of all stakeholders, that the  people are not disabled, it is the environment that disables them. As famous American Rock Climber, engineer and bio-physicist  Hugh Herr said “Humans are not disabled. A person can never be broken. Our built environment,  our technologies, are broken and disabled. We the people need not accept our limitations, but can transcend disability through technological innovation”

With effective participation of all stake holders and a focus on inclusivity and accessibility, Pune can become an ideal smart city, and show the way for other cities in India.

Note :

 Design Bridge is on a mission to work with people with disabilities, for people with disabilities, to transcend disability by harnessing the power of common sense, empathy and technological innovations for  creating accessible built environments in India.