This was the second time I was travelling in a railway coach earmarked for persons with disabilities. The name written outside the railway coaches has now been changed from Viklang Dabba (Handicapped Coach) to Divyang Dabba.
This hardly encapsulated the experience of being ‘divyang’. In fact, it was a far cry from the intention with which the prime minister used this term, emphasising the country use divyang (one with divine limbs) instead of viklang (handicapped).
I travelled in Garib Rath from Mumbai to Delhi with a friend, and since I planned my travel at last minute – with no confirmed tickets available – I decided to use the ‘handicapped’ quota as it would assure me a berth.
Thus, we embarked on our journey in this fully air-conditioned train, sitting in the Divyang coach located at the extreme end of the train itself, just behind the engine.
This means that a disabled individual will have to walk farther than every one else in case he or she wants to buy something at the platform when the train stops. More so, this may have major implications for people who are motor disabled. Clearly, the idea of distances and space has not been kept in mind while planning this.
When we entered the coach, the amount of space was enormous, especially considering that Indian trains are perennially starved of space because of a wide demand-supply gap. The door was wide enough for wheelchairs to pass through and there was a washroom attached to the coach, with a size more than twice the average of regular washrooms in trains.
The coach had four berths, but there were more than ten people in there – and they were all men – making it a highly gendered space.
Upon closer inspection, it became evident that not all of them were disabled. Some of them were sitting there simply because the reserved coach offered them more space than what the Indian railways offer otherwise.
After some time, the ticket inspector entered.
He asked all the passengers without a valid ticket to leave the coach at the next station, saying that it was “wrong” for others to be seated there. However, he emphasised that the coach was only for viklang passengers. Interestingly, he didn’t use the term divyang.
Hearing this, a few left only to come back a few minutes later. When I politely told them that they should leave, they “requested” to be allowed to sit there, claiming there was no space anywhere else.
Now, how does one respond to such a request?
The fact is that apart from the four berths in the coach, there was not an iota of free space and most of the passengers (with no disability) were travelling without an authorised ticket.
And then my friend and I found that the washroom was locked with an iron chain. After some time, we saw a person come, open it and take a few cartons of water bottles and cold drinks. When he was about to lock the washroom again, my friend and I confronted him saying that he cannot restrict the usage of the washroom and, worse enough, turn it into a storeroom.
Initially, he didn’t pay any heed, but when we shouted at him, he said his agency was “paying rent” for using the washroom for storage purposes.
We were surprised beyond disbelief.
In the entire train, the agency thought that washrooms reserved for the disabled were the only place where they could store their things. Would they have done this with any other washroom on the train? Certainly not.
What right did they have to restrict access to the washroom in the disabled coach, treat it as a storeroom and say that they were “paying rent” for it?
Clearly, they thought that persons with disabilities won’t resist and, therefore, they would face no objection from anyone.
This train journey raised some serious questions which my friend and I discussed later.
Does a mere change in nomenclature from viklang to divyang have the potential to change the condition of the numerous disabled people in the country? A name-changing game, without addressing deep-rooted structural issues, can hardly be expected to empower the disabled.
What happens when there are women travellers with disabilities or disabled travellers in wheelchairs in any of these coaches? Or even travellers who are visually challenged?
Sometimes, it may be considerably difficult (owing to the oppressive socio-political structures and stigma surrounding disability) for disabled travellers to put up any resistance to fellow co-travellers who travel unauthorised in the disabled coach or to people who block access to washrooms.
The idea of divyang takes attention away from the real challenges faced by people with disabilities and focuses more on the ‘achievements’ that some of them may have. In short, only those who have ‘achieved’ something despite their disability are portrayed as divyangs.
Not all those who are disabled have such achievements. We need to focus on the real issues instead of simply changing what we call them.