In December 2017, Kaushik Kumar Majumdar, a person with 85% orthopaedic disability, was not allowed to board the Air India flight from Bengaluru to Kolkata. Why? He refused to remove the batteries from his electric wheelchair before putting it in the cargo hold.
In a petition to the Supreme Court, Kaushik pointed out that firstly, there was no specific guideline or legal requirement to remove all the wires since he had already disabled the battery from the main panel, and also that no one would be able to put the wires back together on reaching the Kolkata airport. He also said that the airline staff did not pay heed to his request and reportedly humiliated him for delaying the flight.
On Friday, a Supreme Court bench has directed the central government and Air India to submit a response within eight weeks, framing appropriate policies to ensure people with disabilities (PwD) are able to use air transport with dignity.
The fight continues
While this directive is a welcome move, it brings to fore the same set of existing guidelines and concerns that people with disabilities and activists have been fighting for years.
In September 2011, GoAir offloaded a blind woman and her two children from boarding the flight from Mumbai. In May 2011, a blind woman was asked to disembark from a Mumbai-to-Goa Kingfisher Airlines flight.
In 2012, Jeeja Ghosh, who has cerebral palsy, was forcibly deboarded from Spice Jet as the crew feared her disability might pose a health risk during the course of the flight. “I was seething. I have never felt so insulted. The sheer insensitivity made me cry,” she had told The Telegraph then.
Following this, the Ministry of Civil Aviation constituted the Ashok Kumar Committee on March 22, 2012, to look into various issues relating to improving air travel for persons with disabilities and reduced mobility.
It observed that the 2009 Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) for Persons with Disability (PwD) and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility (PRMs) should be amended further to ensure they have access to, and enjoy air travel on an equal basis, without discrimination, with dignity, and in safety and comfort.
The Committee recommended certain measures, including allocation of responsibility between airports, airlines and other stakeholders to avoid delays and hardships to PwDs, standardising the equipment and other facilities in consultation with the Department of Disabilities Affairs, accessibility of the ticketing system and complaints and redress mechanism, and a Complaints Resolution Officer to hear grievances of persons with disabilities.
These guidelines, in fact, are what Kaushik has reiterated in his suggestions to the SC, to ensure the rights of a PwD are not violated: Framing appropriate policies, rules, guidelines, dedicated bodies to hear their grievances and to sensitise the authorities and staff members of airlines and airport.
While the report was meant to be the basis for the 2009 Civil Aviation Requirements of the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation), the agency accepted only a few recommendations, points out Amba Salelkar, a disability rights activist and lawyer in Chennai. “The DGCA contended that they were coming up with a new CAR. But the activists on the panel pointed out that it was not in consonance with the Committee’s report,” she says.
Despite the clear set guidelines, the airlines, security services and the airport often pass the buck in instances involving PwD and PRMs, she says.
“The staff are not sensitised towards certain procedures. Instead of making access to airport and flight facilities a tedious process, policies should be formulated from the perspective of PwDs. Awareness, training and accountability by the airlines and aviation agencies are equally important. A person with disability cannot run to the Supreme Court every now and then, and the court cannot adjudicate the same direction each time,” says Amba.