Imagine a city without barriers
The project was called No Barriers. It aimed to make Mumbai a city where even the blind could survive
The logic is straightforward. If even a blind person could find his or her way around Mumbai, the city would be easy as pie for everyone else. So, what is it like to be blind in Mumbai? In February 1991, I 'blinded' myself for a week (Mumbai through a blind man's eyes, Nov 6) and experienced for myself the nightmare of Mumbai's open spaces, where nothing is as it should be. Where every step could be your last. Where whole human beings disappear into manholes during the rains, where it is normal for newly-built flyovers to collapse.
I wrote about my experiences in the Indian Express, little realising how much outrage I would set off among the blind by presuming that my weeklong experiment could approximate their lifetime of blindness. "The world is not made for blind people," I was told by an official of the National Association of the Blind. "It's made by the sighted for the sighted. We must fit ourselves into the framework." That 'framework' has looked battle-ravaged and devastated for over four decades now. Mumbai's public spaces are ruins, forever being taken apart and put together again in a loop that never ends. The textures, colours and sounds of the civic environment are selected arbitrarily rather than with science and expertise.
Consider these questions: should doors have a minimum width? Should they open inwards or out? How should you be cued whether to push or pull it? Should public lights have a minimum intensity? How high should they be placed? How tall should the smallest letters be on a public sign? At what distance should they be visible? What typefaces should be standardised for public signage?
In response to my article, the NAB set up a Committee for Environmental Access and commissioned Pathfinders, a research agency, to catalogue Mumbai's access issues. After interviewing about 36 blind people from different strata of society, they compiled a report that examined urban thoroughfares, trains, buses, traffic, currency, public buildings and signage. Their 1991 list included the following, but I have added the 2018 status of the same civic amenities — Low-hanging branches: A blind person's cane cannot detect low-hanging branches caused by irregular pruning. Today: Pruning remains arbitrary, better in upper-income colonies like Dadar, non-existent where poor people live.
Devastated footpaths: A blind man called it a phuta hua path. What was safe and flat in the morning can be a crevasse by evening. Mumbai gives the blind surfaces that will dip and bump and rise unpredictably from day to day, which can be nerve-wracking. Today: Even worse. Additional stumbling blocks created by loose cobblestones resulting from poor bricklaying.
Re-arranged dividers: Dividers help the blind gauge how much more road is left to cross. When they are re-arranged during peak hours to create additional lanes, it can be lethal for a blind person. Today: Even worse, thanks to city-wide construction to build the metro and the underground. Traffic lights: In the absence of sound cues, a blind person cannot know when the signal changes to green unless someone sighted tells him it has. Today: Traffic lights Turned off for no reason around 9 pm, as though city traffic stops then. No sound cues anywhere, day or night.
Detritus: Rubble from excavations, road repair and building constructions is piled along roadsides, unsecured and unannounced. The mounds flatten out over time, littering mud and stones in all directions. Today: Phenomenally worse. Mumbai is more a war-zone than it has ever been. Open trenches: Blind people routinely fall into these open ditches where civic work is going on. Warning signs are rarely put up, nor is the site barricaded. Workmen often disappear for long spells, leaving the dig open and unguarded. Today: See above.
Uncleared garbage: "Refuse piles up in open-air dumps, scavenged by cows, dogs and crows. Sometimes the BMC doesn't clear garbage for days on end." A blind person could fall headlong into this wet, stinking, unhygienic and treacherous obstacle. Today: As bad as it has ever been. Toilets without foot markers: Raised foot-shaped markers would signal to a blind man when he was correctly positioned before the urinal. Today: No change since 1991.
Untextured railway platforms: With no way to know when they had reached the edge of the platform, many blind have died on the tracks. Today: The Metro has textured, cane-friendly platform edges. The local trains — nah. The 1991 report led to an extraordinary public pledge from a conference of public agencies to take specific steps to improve civic access in Mumbai. Like similar pledges, this one remained on paper. Will you send me your observations, and help me grow this list to include everything big and small that impedes civic access in today's Mumbai. Maybe we can start turning this city around.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at email@example.com Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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