It's been a few years since Meenakshi Balasubramanian, a disability rights activist from Chennai, stopped travelling by train.
A member of Equals, Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, an organisation working for the rights of persons with disabilities, Meenakshi is a polio survivor and alternates between using crutches and a wheelchair.
The Indian Railways carries a whopping 23 million passengers daily across the length and breadth of the country, and is preferred by many for long distances and the connectivity to remote areas. However, the lack of infrastructure inside trains and at stations makes train travel unsuitable for Meenakshi.
"I don't use railways because it is inaccessible. I can travel for a maximum of 12 hours at a stretch without having to go to the toilet. But infrastructure wise, using a train is a big issue," she states.
Being unable to board a train is just one of the multiple factors that discourage persons with disabilities to access such a vital mode of public transport.
"The Chennai Central station is relatively accessible. But the destination you are headed to may not be disabled-friendly. Some platforms have uneven surfaces and there are those that are only connected by stairs or over-bridges. Your only option could be the crossing, but in many places, such as in Coimbatore, it is very far from the platform," she says.
Commuters with disabilities also may have to depend on a porter to carry them to the train and women especially find it uncomfortable to be carried by men.
Earlier this year, Virali Modi, a Mumbai-based activist and wheelchair user, started an online petition urging the government to implement disabled friendly measures in Indian railways.
In the petition, which has received over 2 lakh signatures, Virali describes the humiliating experiences she’s had to go through while travelling by train.
"I've been groped and manhandled three separate times by porters. They were helping me board the train because Indian trains are not wheelchair accessible. I am a disabled woman living in Mumbai who loves to travel. I have had to wear a diaper because I couldn’t use the train bathroom. And when I needed to change that diaper, I had no privacy and had to wait for hours for the lights to go off at night. The railways treat the disabled as a piece of luggage. This needs to stop!" an irate Virali wrote.
"The entire process, of inaccessibility and having to depend on someone to get on a train, is abusive. You are made to feel like a piece of luggage and this has an emotional setback for the individual," she says.
Meenakshi also talks about sexual harassment at stations and on trains, and the lack of a complaint mechanism, especially for people with disabilities.
Around five years ago when travelling from Kochi to Chennai, Meenakshi was waiting on the platform when a man molested her. Before she figured what had happened, the man had walked away.
"Even if you want to complain, where should you go and whom should you approach? Every room in the station is inaccessible," she states.
Ummul Khair, who works with the NGO Vidya Sagar, says it is not just wheelchair users like her who find it extremely daunting to use public transport.
"Each person has a different kind of disability. For instance, people with vision impairment need to have access to information in Braille," she opines.
Trained as an advocate, Ummul also works in the Disability Legislation Unit of the NGO, for which she has to regularly travel alone. Though she prefers autos for commuting within the city, the few times she has taken a train have been quite awful.
"First you have to call an auto to the station, then hire a porter. Porters may not agree or sometimes they could be drunk. Then climbing inside the bogie is difficult. You need someone to lift your wheelchair too. And the toilets are horrible," she says.
Several of her friends with disabilities find it difficult to venture out by themselves due to these very reasons.
It is not just trains but other forms of public transport, such as buses, that are equally inaccessible to persons with disabilities.
Meenakshi remembers taking a private bus once where she had difficulty climbing the steep steps into the bus. Those around her, including the driver, grew impatient and told her that she should not be travelling in the first place and that she was causing a delay for everybody else.
"The only options we have are to plan in advance or not travel at all. I’ve had to opt out of so many family functions because of this. Also, I end up spending a lot more. If it costs Rs 2,500 to travel to Kerala, I would have to shell out Rs 20,000. Affordability is a big question, and you have to plan your social life and personal life accordingly. The burden of inaccessibility is being borne by the individual," she asserts.
Meenakshi feels the approach of the government to make public transport spaces accessible to all is flawed.
"The government does not understand the issues and rights of persons with disabilities. It lacks perspective. Accessibility has to be addressed everywhere simultaneously. Because there is no point if you make Bengaluru and Chennai accessible and not Trichy or Madurai. I have to travel from one place to another. I won't be just sitting in the railway station," she says.