Need to factor in Access for Disabled at the Ayodhya Ram Mandir

By Shruti Pushkarna

I have worked in television newsrooms for most part of my journalistic career. Despite several misgivings, I enjoyed the energy in that space, especially while handling major coverage like the elections, Union Budget or any special programming. The increased tabloidisation of news may have compelled me to quit, but as they say, old habits die hard. The mind is still drawn to TV channels on ‘big news days’.

August 5, 2020 was one such historic event for the country when Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and the whole jingbang) reached Ayodhya to lay the foundation stone of the Ram temple. Most TV stations started their countdown to the ‘bhavya bhoomi pujan’ a day before. Special graphics dipped in hues of yellow and orange flashed on the screens. Anchors dressed in ethnic attire welcomed the audience to this ‘sanskari saffron shindig’.

Now before you judge me for tracking every minute detail of this cringeworthy display, it was sheer morbid fascination. Watching the ornamental sets emerge in news studios, I observed various aspects of the still-to-be built temple. Some news anchors even gave a virtual tour from the front to the inner sanctum, moving from one floor to another. Looking at the 3D model, the first question that crossed my mind was whether accessibility needs had been taken into account at the designing stage.

Reporters caught up with the architects responsible for the construction, gushing over the massive structure, highlighting it from various angles. A series of steps without ramp or railing were visible in the montage of images. But no one enquired how a disabled, elderly, pregnant woman, chronically ill patient or an injured person with a temporary handicap would access this place of worship.

Political/ religious/ spiritual leaders delivered speeches citing Lord Ram’s principles of fairness, his equal love for all and his special attention towards the vulnerable. The Modi errr Ram-bhakt journalists played up the rhetoric in a loop without considering if everyone had truly been included in this grand scheme of things.

Shouldn’t we expect the media to analyse, review and bring forth the areas that have been left unaddressed or ignored?

As per Census 2011, the disabled population stands at around 27 million and the elderly constitute 104 million. The actual latest numbers would be much higher. How can establishments shirk responsibility of providing everyone the right to free movement with dignity?

I have written about accessibility in the past but let me reiterate some points in this context. It’s important to note that there are proper laws and grievance mechanisms in place to ensure inclusion. Section 45 (1) of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 mandates “all existing public buildings shall be made accessible in accordance with the rules formulated by the Central Government…”

As defined in the Act, public building means “a government or private building, used or accessed by the public at large, including a building used for educational or vocational purposes, workplace, commercial activities, public utilities, religious, cultural, leisure or recreational activities, medical or health services, law enforcement agencies, reformatories or judicial foras, railway stations or platforms, roadways bus stands or terminus, airports or waterways.”

Section 44 also mandates that “No establishment shall be granted permission to build any structure if the building plan does not adhere to the rules…”

In fact, a judgment was passed by the State Disability Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities in October 2019, directing several religious places across Delhi to provide proper accessible facilities at the sanctum sanctorum, the points of distribution of prasad, material for worship like flowers, toilets, parking etc.

Following the Accessible India campaign flagged off by the PM in his first term, the Ministry of Urban Development issued Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for PWDs and the elderly in February 2016. A Delhi-based NGO has also crafted detailed procedures for making religious places accessible, keeping in mind the needs of persons with different types of disabilities.

While all is hunky-dory on paper, who will ensure the implementation on ground? Considering Ram didn’t discriminate, shouldn’t his followers guarantee an equal right to worship to all?

Since the construction hasn’t begun yet, one can only hope that accessibility standards are followed and persons with disabilities as well as the elderly can visit the site with ease.