Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXI No. 18, January 1-15, 2022
Every December, the Marina beach is made temporarily accessible to the differently-abled for a week to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year, the Greater Chennai Corporation’s arrangements come after a prolonged gap – disabled citizens will enjoy the sea and sand after a long interval of two years, with the pandemic and heavy showers playing spoilsport. GCC Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi has confirmed that these temporary facilities – made on the portion of the beach behind the Gandhi statue – will remain in place till January 16, 2022. In a quote to India Today, he said, “5 floating wheelchairs that can go closer to the sea and 50 normal wheelchairs are arranged by the GCC. But for the safety of differently-abled person and their dependants, we have advised that they be at a distance of 20 meters from the sea and not go into the water.”
At this juncture, it is worth noting that the beach does not have permanent solutions in place to make it entirely accessible to differently-abled citizens – the Corporation maintains four beach wheelchairs which are reportedly kept tucked away in the accessible toilet; most visitors do not know that even such sparse amenities as these are available. Naturally, the state of affairs is disappointing to the differently-abled – not only is the beach a natural heritage treasure of the city, but it is also one of the precious few recreational spots that are truly affordable to all; lack of accessibility bars entry to an entire demographic of citizens. While the temporary structures of December are welcomed, disability rights activists are quick to point out that such initiatives must be made permanent – and not at just the beach, either.
Unfortunately, the city does not have a healthy track record of taking care of the needs of its differently-abled citizens. The Accessible India campaign launched by the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was kicked off in Chennai in 2015. The program aimed at achieving the following goals by June 2022, among others:
Converting important government buildings into fully accessible structures
Converting international and domestic airports into fully accessible premises
Ensuring that at least a quarter of government-owned public transport carriers in the country are equipped with fully accessible facilities
However, ground reports say that little progress has been made towards these goals. The city’s pavements are not accommodative to the differently-abled with their bollards and lack of gradient ramp. Citizens visiting the MGR Central railway station report that the disabled friendly toilets tend to remain locked; they add that drinking water facilities are not easily accessible either. While the Ripon building has ramps and elevators, reports point out that its toilets are not disabled friendly and are located on the first floor; the heritage building also does not offer information in braille, tactile formats or audio. At the Secretariat, a ramp is available but at a different gate; there’s no signage to direct users. Perhaps the greatest disappointment is the lack of accessibility planning in public transport, which activists say ought to be taken into account in the initial planning stage. For instance, it was just earlier in June that the state government announced that persons with disabilities could travel for free in government buses; however, lack of ramps and other accessibility measures make it hard for citizens to avail the service.
With the GCC planning heavy public infrastructure spends covering new toilets, park renovations and more, activists have begun to raise a fresh call to ensure that planning involves differently-abled representatives to ensure inclusive design of public spaces.
Coming back to the Marina beach, corporation officials say that plans are in the offing to design permanent solutions that are compliant with CRZ rules. According to reports, one fix involves creating a passage with eco blocks typically used in rainwater harvesting structures while another proposal involves a design using African teak. In a quote to the New Indian Express, a senior official said, “The designs have not been finalised since we also have to consider the cost difference between the two designs, among several other factors.”