The two COVID waves have demonstrated that sustainable and resilient transport infrastructure is a prerequisite for an economy to function. Rightfully, these elements are gaining further prominence in transport planning and design. However, an under-appreciated fact is that lasting sustainability and resilience are not possible without inclusivity.
India’s transport systems of tomorrow should be Safe, Accessible, Reliable and Affordable (SARA) for all including over 10 crore Indians living with a disabilities. As the country spends over Rs 233 thousand crores earmarked for transport infrastructure in budget 2021-22, the need to keep inclusivity front and centre is paramount.
Inclusivity in transport systems is important so that factors such as gender, age, disability, traveling with young children, or heavy luggage don’t compromise travel choices or experience. When transportation is inclusive or SARA-compliant, citizens are empowered to access various opportunities and create value for themselves and their communities. India’s transport infrastructure today has much room for improvement on these parameters.
Ola Mobility Institute’s 2019 report shows that only 9 percent of women found public transport to be completely safe. Government data from January 2021 demonstrates that less than 7 percent of public buses were fully accessible for wheelchair users. In February 2021, disability rights activists also raised concerns around Chennai Metro’s potential inaccessibility. These are but a few examples of inaccessibility frustrating Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), the elderly and other travellers even today.
Much of this can be attributed to SARA consideration of not being a part of transport projects at the design and planning stage. Often, transport planners do not fully understand the needs of diverse communities. They may not fully grasp the wide-reaching benefits of SARA features in the form of reduced care cost and greater participation in economic activities.
As a result, they deprioritise SARA parameters at the initial stages to balance other budgetary needs. However, this is a suboptimal choice not just in terms of foregone opportunities, but also the absolute financial outlay over the long run. According to the World Bank, accessibility features make up less than 1 percent of the project cost if incorporated right from the planning and design stage. Making retrospective accessibility improvements on the other hand is much more expensive, time-consuming and effort-intensive.
Historically, a few steps have been taken to make transportation more inclusive: launching the Accessible India campaign in 2015 and mandating provision of accessible transport under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. However, these measures have yielded limited on-the-ground results. An under-explored mechanism to make transport systems more inclusive is linking SARA milestones with disbursal of project funding. The Delhi Metro has benefited from just such an approach.
The Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JICA), a major project funder for the Delhi Metro, stipulated a funding pre-condition that the entire system should be fully inclusive right from inception. Thus, SARA features including infrastructure elevators for wheelchair users and the elderly, tactile markings for the travelers living with visual disabilities, safety features for women are pervasive throughout the Metro network. Today, the Delhi Metro is the preferred mode choice for millions of Delhiites across the gender, age, and disability spectrum.
The Government is the primary funder of transport infrastructure. As an example, between 2013 - 2025, central and state governments have allocated over INR 88,000 crores for metro projects in six cities across four states namely Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Between 1997 and 2019, over Rs 1,400 crore was allocated for bus projects in Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. These infrastructure projects are ultimately funded by public money and therefore should be fully available to all the citizens.
By stipulating SARA milestones as a pre-condition for disbursing project funding, the Government can accelerate making India’s transport systems inclusive. These considerations should go beyond a particular transport system, bus stop or a train station, and also include first and last-mile connectivity.
Similarly, emphasis must be given to the accessibility of transport apps, websites, and payment and ticketing infrastructure.
In his introductory speech for the World Sustainable Development Summit 2021, the Hon’ble Prime Minister emphasised that sustainable development is incomplete without equitable access. This realisation holds particularly true for India’s transport systems. For a nation seeking to rely on infrastructure and demography to move towards self-reliance, inclusive transportation is vital to unlock the full value of its human capital. Therefore, as India creates sustainable and resilient transport systems, we cannot afford to deprioritise inclusion. As the Indian economy recovers from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, investing in inclusive and SARA-compliant infrastructure is the need of the hour.
The author, Apoorv Kulkarni, is head of accessibility and inclusion research and advocacy at the Ola Mobility Institute. The views expressed are personal
First Published: IST