Around India on Wheels

Published: October 30, 2011  |  Source: indianexpress.com
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Four wheelchair-bound friends are touring India in an effort to sensitise the government and the people to the need of making travel barrier-free for the disabled

Finding your way across the sprawling Rock Gardens in Chandigarh is not meant to be an effort, unless your movement is restricted by the wheelchair you are travelling in. The uneven paths make progress difficult and negotiating the narrow lanes is an exercise in patience. When Arvind Prabhoo, Sunita Sancheti, Neenu Kewlani and Nishant Khade decided to undertake a road trip across India, it was difficulties such as these that the wheelchair-bound friends had anticipated and hoped to document to sensitise governments to the need of making travel barrier-free.

Appropriately then, the 81-day tour which began in Mumbai on September 28, is called Beyond Barriers —The Incredible India Tour, and it will take the “Fearless Four”, as they call themselves, across every Indian state and union territory and their capitals on the mainland. The trip was Prabhoo’s brainchild: “I have always loved travel. I have seen how seamlessly the disabled can travel and enjoy the experience abroad. India is a tourist haven. Why can’t the disabled too savour the experience?”, asks the 41-year-old, who had a near-fatal accident over two decades back, resulting in a spinal cord injury that rendered him wheelchair-bound.

Their itinerary is ambitious. Initially planned for 55 days, it bulged to 81 days after factoring in halts and other operational necessities. Once Prabhoo formulated the plan, the other three came on board. NGOs and other sponsors like accounting firm KPMG, too donated generously. “Leave alone travel, I couldn’t even read a map. And here I was, drawing up an itinerary around the country,” says Sancheti, 41, who was partially paralysed after an operation to remove a tumour in her spinal cord went wrong. Her planned itinerary has already seen them through Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Leh and Srinagar. Now they are on the last leg of their tour that will take them to the NorthEast, followed by Kolkata and south India before turning back to Mumbai on December 19.

While the men are travelling in their own cars, the two women are renting a cab for each leg of the journey. “We want to see what facilities exist for disabled women travellers. We will make a compendium of the transport facilities and publish it so that other travellers like us know what to expect at each destination,” says Sancheti, a trained accountant working with a Mumbai-based firm. For the same reason, the four are also putting up at two-star hotels. “Most people cannot afford a five-star hotel even if it is disabled-friendly. It’s important to the average disabled traveller to find facilities and support at the hotels their limited budgets will allow,” she adds. Sancheti and Kewlani are also flying periodically to save them the stress of travel to certain destinations. That bit too has come with its challenges. “Most airlines are yet to wake up to the need to make flying disabled-friendly. Our experience has been disappointing,” says Kewlani, 41, who manages her family business, besides being an active campaigner for the rights of the disabled.

The four first came together at the Mumbai-based Nina Foundation, that helps people with spinal cord injuries adapt and lead a normal life. Their next stint at the Able Disabled All People Together or ADAPT (formerly the Spastic Society of India) consolidated their friendship. “We used to talk about the then prevailing discourse that was oriented towards medical care and not genuine empowerment of the disabled as equal members of the society. It was a period when the Disability Act had not come into force. There were no rehabilitation facilities, nor any awareness about the rights of the disabled,” says Kewlani.

After the law was enacted in 1995, facilities have improved marginally, but a lot still remains to be accomplished. During their rehab stints abroad, the four came across improved conditions that could easily be replicated in India yet disparities still remain in its implementation across states. Khade, an engineer running a services business, should know. His firm was involved in the construction of the Bandra skywalk in Mumbai, but was unsuccessful in making it disabled-friendly owing to governmental apathy.

So far, their tour has thrown up mixed experiences. “India is truly incredible, but hardly barrier-free. Lucknow is one of the most disabled-friendly places we have been to, even better than Mumbai, but we still had to be carried up the steep steps of the Bada Imambara. And even then we were denied entry because we were on wheelchairs,” says Kewlani. Jaipur, says Prabhoo, too is a disabled-friendly city. Their list of favourite monuments includes the Akshardham Temple in Ahmedabad and the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The trip has also helped the four get a glimpse into the work done by organisations around the country for the rights of the disabled. “An NGO in Ahmedabad, organised a special garba for us, as it was the Navratri festival then. We joined in the festivities on our wheelchairs,” says Prabhoo. The high point, so far, has been Leh, where they met volunteers of the People’s Action Group on Inclusion and Disability or PAGID. “People from metros can never imagine the conditions under which they work. Infrastructure is abysmal and yet the devotion with which they are making Ladakh barrier-free is inspirational,” says Sancheti.

At all the state capitals and union territory headquarters, their first port of call has been the disability commissioner. “We are given a patient hearing, but I haven’t come across a sensitivity to the problem, or the will to act and this has been a uniform experience at all the capitals,” says Prabhoo, who gave up a career in medicine after the accident to turn entrepreneur.

The four are documenting their experiences, filming each leg of the journey. At the end of the 81 days, they will submit their recommendations to the government, and work on a documentary. “We plan to rate each city on the facilities they offer and also suggest what can be done,” says Sancheti. “We hope that more travellers will follow our example and travel. Once that happens, facilities for the disabled travellers will improve,” says Prabhoo.

The 16,000 km trip has left them exhilarated. “I wanted to prove myself when I embarked on this trip and now it feels almost like a rebirth,” says Prabhoo. “It’s given my life a sense of purpose. It’s truly been an experience of a lifetime,” says Sancheti.

L RAMAKRISHNAN