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Supreme Court on Accessibility for Persons with Visual Disabilities – Part II

Posted in Case Review

This is a  continuation of the Supreme Court Judgment on accessibility, and  reproduces important paragraphs with respect to   the Court’s directions on accessibility for persons with blindness. 

Case Title: RAJIVE RATURI V. UNION OF INDIA AND OTHERS, WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO. 243 OF 2005, Decided on 1st January, 2017.

  1. Directions/Order

23) Vide order dated August 9, 2017, this Court sought the response of the respondents in respect of directions which are sought by the petitioner and listed above. In compliance therewith, the Union of India has filed affidavit on August 23, 2017. In this affidavit, the Union of India has itself accepted the position under the Disabilities Act, 2016 by mentioning relevant provisions of the Act in detail, which have already been taken note of.

24) The Government has also pointed out that the Bus Body Coat as notified by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways vide GSR No. 895(E) dated September 20, 2016 has been adopted, in the form of Central Motor Vehicles (12th Amendment) Rules, 2016. It is also mentioned that in case of Information & Communication Technology, the guidelines for Indian Government websites as adopted by Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances are to be complied with by all the websites of establishments. The Ministry is working with other line Ministries/Departments to finalise accessible standards for other facilities and services. Insofar as directions sought by the petitioner in his affidavit dated June 30, 2017 are concerned, the Union of India has given its response thereto in the following manner:

“(a) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 1, it is stated that the State Governments are being regularly reminded up to submit cost estimates for retrofitting for the release of grant in aid. 822 proposals have been received so far, however, funds amounting Rs.84.32 crore for 385 buildings has been released. For remaining, 437 buildings funds could not be released due to technical errors in the proposals, pending Utilization certificates etc. Cost estimates of 780 buildings are yet to be received. Directing the States to submit the proposal within a period of one month may not be practical since the States are required to get their cost estimates done through their Executive Engineers of Public Works Department. Further, the direction sought by the petitioner to disburse the entire fund to the States within a period of two months is also not feasible. During the current financial year, an amount of Rs.207 crore is available under Central Government’s scheme called ‘Scheme for Implementation of Persons with Disabilities Act (SIPDA)’. Thus, release of funds depends on the amount available with the Government at that point of time. Therefore, it would be appropriate to direct the States to submit the proposal within a period of six months and the Central Government would release the fund, if the proposal is complete in accordance with the scheme within a period of two months from the receipt of the proposal, subject to the availability of the funds. It is further submitted that it may also not be practically feasible possible to direct the State Governments to complete retrofitting by December, 2017. It may be noted that after sanctioning of the proposal, the State Governments are required to float tender and assign the work to the agency which may take time. Further, the completion of work will take time. It may not be feasible in all the cases to complete the work within a period of six months. The States may be directed to complete the process of initiation of retrofitting work by December, 2017. It is submitted that the State Governments may be directed to conduct accessible audit after retrofitment so as to see whether all the findings of the access audit report have been adequately addressed or not.

(b) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 2, it is stated that it may be appropriate to give three months time for the States to submit the list of 50% of the Government buildings in all State Capitals as per target 2 of AIC. It may perhaps be appropriate to advise the States/UTs to devise work plan to ensure retrofitment in these buildings by December, 2018 and conduct accessibility audit as soon as the retrofitment work is over.

(c) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 3, it is submitted that it may be appropriate to give three months time for the States to submit the list of buildings in 10 most important cities as per target 3 of AIC.

(d) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 4, it is submitted that CPWD/Ministry of Urban Development is the nodal Department for maintenance of General Pool Office Accommodation (GPOA) buildings. CPWD has intimated that out of 50 cities of phase I, 11 cities do not have GPOA buildings under maintenance of CPWD. For the remaining 39 cities, 75 buildings were identified, of which retrofitting in 49 buildings in 27 cities have been completed and work is in progress for 9 buildings in 8 cities. Retrofitting of all the 466 buildings within a period of one year may not be feasible as it involves allocation of funds.

(e) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 5, it is submitted that Ministry of Civil Aviation has been requested to carry out retrofitting activities as per extant guidelines/instructions. The access audit report of IIT Roorkee with respect to Indira Gandhi International Airport has been placed on the website of the Department.

(f) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 6, it is submitted that the access audit report of IIT Roorkee with respect to New Delhi Railway Station has been placed on the website of the Department.

(g) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 7, it is submitted that Ministry of Road Transport & Highways being the concerned Ministry to take a view on the possibility of phasing out. However, as per Section 46 of the Disabilities Act, 2016, the service providers whether Government or private shall provide services in accordance with the rules on accessibility formulated by the Central Government under Section 40 within period of 2 years from the date of notification of such rules. Mostly the passenger bus transportation is in the domain of State Governments. It is for the States to take a call in the matter. It may be appropriate to direct them to comply with the provisions of Section 46 of the Disabilities Act, 2016.

(h) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 8, it is submitted that with a view to help the State Government to make their website accessible as per GIGW and W3C compliance, DEPwD has issued a work order to ERNET India for 917 State Government websites to be made accessible as per GIGW and W3C compliance. Now the accessibility standards has been prescribed for websites and the document to upload on it under Rule 15(1)(c) of the 2017 Rules. All the establishments are required to comply with these standards.

(i) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 9 no specific directions has been sought. It may be noted that Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for barrier-free built environment for persons with disabilities and elderly persons issued by Ministry of Urban Development has been adopted as reference for accessibility norms and therefore only these guidelines are to be mandatorily followed.

(j) With respect to the directions sought under Serial Number 10, it is submitted that Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) has done this exercise earlier with reference to order of High Court of Delhi in W.P.(C) No. 6250 of 2010 – The National Association of Deaf v. Union of India & Ors. Accordingly, the Department has started training of its officials to develop a pool of sign language interpreters in the public offices. So far six batches of sign language training have been completed and about 100 sign language interpreters have been trained. Status reports are bring filed in the High Court from time to time.”

25) It is, thus, stated that though the respondent has taken appropriate steps in respect of ten action points spelled out by the petitioner and is attempting to fulfil the needs of such visually impaired persons in all possible manners.

26) This affidavit also refers to the judgment of this Court in the case of Justice Sunanda Bhandare Foundation v. Union of India & Anr.. wherein certain directions were given by this Court. It is mentioned that while dealing with the compliance of the directions contained in the aforesaid judgment, this Court has passed order dated April 25, 2017 (reported as Justice Sunanda Bhandare Foundation v. Union of India & Anr.[1]), as per which following directions are given:

“25. We have referred to certain provisions only to highlight that the 2016 Act has been enacted and it has many salient features. As we find, more rights have been conferred on the disabled persons and more categories have been added. That apart, access to justice, free education, role of local authorities, National fund and the State fund for persons with disabilities have been created. The 2016 Act is noticeably a sea change in the perception and requires a march forward look with regard to the persons with disabilities and the role of the States, local authorities, educational institutions and the companies. The statute operates in a broad spectrum and the stress is laid to protect the rights and provide punishment for their violation.

  1. Regard being had to the change in core aspects, we think it apposite to direct all the States and the Union Territories to file compliance report keeping in view the provisions of the 2016 Act within twelve weeks hence. The States and the Union Territories must realize that under the 2016 Act their responsibilities have grown and they are required to actualize the purpose of the Act, for there is an accent on many a sphere with regard to the rights of the disabilities. When the law is so concerned for the disabled persons and makes provision, it is the obligation of the law executing authorities to give effect to the same in quite promptitude. The steps taken in this regard shall be concretely stated in the compliance report within the time stipulated. When we are directing the States, a duty is cast also on the States and its authorities to see that the statutory provisions that are enshrined and applicable to the cooperative societies, companies, firms, associations and establishments, institutions, are scrupulously followed. The State Governments shall take immediate steps to comply with the requirements of the 2016 Act and file the compliance report so that this Court can appreciate the progress made.
  2. The compliance report to be filed by the States shall be supplied to the learned counsel for the petitioner, learned counsel for the Union of India as well as to the learned counsel for the applicant/intervenor so that they can assist the Court. 28. The Registry is directed to send a copy of the order passed today to the Chief Secretaries of the States and the Administrators of the Union Territories.”

27) In respect of the action taken by the respondents as mentioned in its affidavit dated August 23, 2017, the petitioner has furnished the following comments:

Petitioner’s Comments to the UOI response dated 23rd August, 2017

  1. 1) the petitioner reiterates the time limits in the directions sought (in Col. 2) for the following response:
  • The original deadline of July 2016 under this target has been extended by the Central Coordination Committee (CCC) in its meeting on 29.11.2016 to December 2017. (Annexure R-2 of the Action Taken Report of UOI dated 14.12.2016)
  • The 2016 Act vide Section 46 requires that all service providers, both Government and private, make their facilities, including buildings, accessible within a period of two years from the date of notification of the Accessibility Rules (notified in June 2016). Therefore all government buildings providing any services to the public are to be made fully accessible by June 2019.
  • Whereas Section 46 of the 2016 Act contemplates all buildings and facilities throughout the country to made accessible by June 2019, the AIC targets very limited number in Phase I, i.e. 1653 buildings. Therefore, the December 2017, set by the CCC ought to be adhered to and the timeframes in the direction sought by the Petitioner have been made with regard to the revised CCC deadline.

2) The Submission by UOI that funds disbursal under SIPDA will be subject to availability is not tenable. The 2016 Act nowhere contemplates the implementation of accessibility in public buildings and services to be contingent on availability of fund in SIPDA. It is therefore respectfully submitted that the accessibility provisions of the 2016 Act being mandatory, funds as the required must be allocated by the Central Government from the Consolidated Funds of India.

3) It is further reiterated that after retrofitting the State Govt, buildings, they should be audited according to the Harmonised Guidelines keeping in view that the audits commissioned by UOI prior to retrofitting were not according to the Harmonised Guidelines.

  1. In respect of the timeframe for the State governments to identify the buildings under this target it may be noted that the CCC in its meeting dated 29.11.2016 had extended the deadline for the same to 28.02.2017 6 months have already passed since then and according to the 08.08.2017 Status Report (Annexure R-4) herein) only o7 states have identified buildings. Therefore, the Petitioner reiterates that the remaining States be directed to indentify the buildings under this target within 1 month. In so far as the deadline for retrofitting, for the reasons stated under Target 1 above, Petitioner reiterates that 50% of the work under this Target should be completed by December 2017 and the rest by December 2018.

3 It is to be noted that as per the UOI Status Report dated 08.08.2017, only 7 States have submitted their lists of 10 most important cities/towns and not a single building has been identified so far. Therefore the reason stated under Target 1 above, Petitioner reiterates that the States be directed to identify the 10 most important cities/towns and 50% of the Govt, buildings in these cities/towns within 1 month from today and the retrofitting of these be completed by December 2019 which is the revised extended deadline set down by the CCC.

4 With regard to this target, the CCC in its meeting on 29.11.2016 has extended the deadline for retrofitting 466 Central Govt. buildings to December 2016. 8 months have already passed since then and only 49 building have been retrofitted. The submission of the UOI that all 466 buildings cannot be retrofitted within 1 year because of limitations in funds allocated cannot be accepted. As noted above the 2016 Act Vide Section 46 requires all Govt. service providers to make their facilities including the buildings accessible by June 2019, which requirement is not subject to allocation of funds. Admittedly 466 buildings under this target would constitute only a small fraction of the total number of Central Govt. buildings to be made accessible under the 2016 Act. Therefore, the Petitioner reiterates the timeframe of July 2018 for completing this target.

5 The Petitioner has brought to the attention of this Hon’ble Court by its Affidavit dated 30.06.2017 of several features in which the airports in the country are not accessible. It may be noted that in its meeting on 29.11.2016, the CCC had noted that the accessibility work done on airports was only basic and that the Civil Aviation Ministry should follow the prescribed template, i.e. IIT Roorkee template on the Govt, website would not serve its purpose reiterates the directions sought with regard to this Target.

6 The Petitioner has brought to the attention of this Hon’ble Court by its Affidavit dated 30.06.2017 of several features in which the railways in the country are not accessible. In particular the Petitioner conducted a survey of the New Delhi Railway Station which has been claimed to have been accessible by UOI. The Petitioner annexed a number of photographs showing several critical features lacking in accessibility. It may be noted that in its meeting on 29.11.2016, the CCC had noted that the accessibility work done on railways was only basic and that the Railway Ministry should follow the prescribed template, i.e. IIT Roorkee template for New Delhi Railway Station and not pick out any elements therefrom. It is submitted that merely placing the IIT Roorkee template on the Govt, website would not serve its purpose and therefore the Petitioner reiterates the directions sought with regard to this target.

7 It may be noted that Section 41 of the 2016 Act provides for comprehensive accessibility in all modes of transport including but not limited to bus transport. Read with Section 46 and Rule 15 of the 2017 Rules, the UOI and the States are to ensure that all Public transport systems including transport carriers and roads are made fully accessible by June 2019 in accordance with the Harmonised Guidelines. Therefore, the Petitioner reiterates t he directions sought for with regard to this target.

8 It may be noted that Section 42 of the 2016 Act provides for comprehensive accessibility in information and communication services including audios, print and electronic media. Section 46 read with Rule 15 of the 2017 Rules mandates that the same be completed by June 2019 throughout the country i8t is in this context that the Petitioner has sought directions to have 50% of the Govt, websites, 5% of the public documents and 25% of all TV programmes to be made accessible by mid-2018. The UOI response only indicates that work orders have been issued for 917 State Govt, websites but no timeframe for completion has been mentioned. The earlier status report filed by the Govt, indicated that only 100 of a total of 4000 Central Govt. websites were being made accessible. It is therefore, clear that only a very small percentage of Central and State Govt, websites are being made accessible and then too no timeframes have been given. With regard to the public documents and TV programmes, mere advisories have been issued to the private and public broadcasters and to the Govt, departments for making their programmes and their documents accessible but no timeframe have been mandated for the same. More significantly, there is no plan for either the Central or State Govts, to audit the accessibility features of websites. Documents and TV programmes after the accessibility work had been completed. It is in this contest that the Petitioner reiterates the directions sought under this target.

9 The Harmonised Guidelines being the repository for all the accessibility guidelines in the built environment, transportation and information and communication, the same should be regularly updated keeping in view the provisions of the 2016 Act and technological advancements, vis-a-vis the needs of persons with disabilities and further any work on accessibility should be done and fully audited with respect to the updated Harmonised Guidelines.

10 As per the information available with the Petitioner, in the NADVs. UOI matter, the estimation made by the RCI of the number of sign language interpreters required was only for Delhi but did not cover the rest of India. It is reiterated that Sign Language Interpreters (SL’s) are required at all major places where communication and dealing with the public in both the public and private sector take place. This will cover railway stations, major bus depots, hospitals, airports, major govt, offices banks, large private sector offices, shopping malls, large education institutions and the like. Compliance with the mandate of Section 40, 41, 42 and 46 of the 2016 Act read with Section2 (f), i.e. definition of “Communication” to include sign language would require a large number of SLI’s to be trained and available across the country by June 2019 and the figure of 100 SLI’s quoted by the UOI would be highly inadequate to meet this requirement. Therefore, the Petitioner reiterates the directions sought that RCI be directed to make reasonable estimation of the number of SLI’s required in India and thereafter for the UOI and all States and UT’s to make adequate arrangements to train and make available 500 SLI’s every year until the target of the estimated SLI’s in the country is met.

28) From the foregoing discussion, following pertinent aspects can be discerned:

(a) Ten action points which are enumerated by the petitioner, for providing proper access to public facilities to the persons suffering from visual disability, are now statutorily recognised under the Disabilities Act, 2016. To put it straight, the Legislature has cast a duty on the executive wing for making provisions in this behalf. This legal position is accepted by the Union of India in its affidavit dated August 23, 2017. In this affidavit, the respondent had itself mentioned various provisions under the Disabilities Act, 2016 which mandate the respondents to make provisions for these facilities. Not only this, such provisions even specified the deadlines for undertaking these measures. Thus, it becomes a statutory obligation on the part of the Central Government as well as the State Governments to do the needful by the target dates.

(b) Though, Central Government has taken various measures, many State Governments have not responded at all.

(c) In Justice Sunanda Bhandare Foundation case as well, this Court has given various directions from time to time. In its order dated April 25, 2017, the States as well as Union Territories are directed to comply with the provisions of Disabilities Act, 2016 and to report to the Court about the progress made by them in this behalf. The Court is, thus, monitoring the progress in this behalf in the said writ petition.

Having regard to the aforesaid position emerging on record, we dispose of these petitions with the following directions:

  • Making 20-50 important government buildings in 50 cities fully accessible December 2017 (State Govt. Buildings)

Since, this deadline is set by the AIC itself, this should be met. In any case, as per the provisions of Section 46 of the Disabilities Act, 2016, all Government buildings providing any services to the public are to be made fully accessible by June, 2019 which has to be adhere to.

  • Making 50% of all the govt. buildings of the national capital and all the state capitals fully accessible by December 2018.

Though the deadline for identifying the buildings was fixed as February 28, 2017, according to status report dated August 8, 2017, only seven States have identified the buildings. Remaining States are directed to identify the buildings by February 28, 2018 and it is made clear that no further time in this behalf shall be granted. Insofar as deadline for retrofitting is concerned, the work should be completed by December, 2018.

  • Completing accessibility audit of 50% of govt. buildings and making them fully accessible in 10 most important cities/towns of states/UTs not covered in targets (i) and (ii) by December 2019.

Position regarding this action point is the same as noted in respect of action point 2, namely, only seven States have submitted their list of 10 most important cities/towns and not a single building has been identified so far. The States are, therefore, directed to identify 10 most important cities/towns and complete accessibility audit of 50% of Government buildings in these cities/towns by February 28, 2018. Likewise, retrofitting of these be completed by December 2019 as per the revised deadline set out by CCC.

  • Central Govt. buildings.

Having regard to the comments given by the petitioner in its affidavit dated August 23, 2017 on this aspect, time frame of August, 2018 is given for completing this target.

  • Accessibility in airports. Completing accessibility audit of all the international airports and making them fully accessible by December 2016.

The demand of the petitioner that Civil Aviation Ministry should follow the prescribed template i.e. IIT Roorkee template on the Government website appears to be justified which should be implemented as expeditiously as possible. The Union of India should thereafter conduct the accessibility and audit and upload the same on the website by June, 2018.

  • Accessibility in Railways. Ministry of Railways was required to make all A1, A and B category railway stations fully accessible by July 2016. 50% of all railway stations to made fully accessible by March 2018.

As is clear from the affidavit dated June 30, 2017 filed by the petitioner, as many as 12 directions are sought under this action point. Insofar as providing of various facilities in the railway stations are concerned, which are listed by the petitioner, there cannot be any dispute that the Indian railways is statutorily obligated to make those provisions. The petitioner has, however, sought time bound directions for providing such facilities. Wherever the provisions of the Disabilities Act, 2016 prescribe the deadlines, the respondent is to provide those facilities within those time framework. Insofar as other facilities are concerned, in respect of which the petitioner wants those facilities by specified period, we are not fixing such a period. Instead, we direct that the appropriate/competent authority in the railways shall make an assessment in this behalf so as to ascertain as to by what date(s) these facilities will be provided. Such a study can be undertaken and exercise be completed within a period of three months and report in that behalf shall be filed in the Court, chalking out the progressive plan.

  • 10% of government owned public transport carriers are to be made fully accessible by March 2018.

Here again, Section 41 of the Disabilities Act, 2016 provides for comprehensive accessibility in all modes of transport including but not remitted to the bus transport. Therefore, it becomes the duty of the Union, States as well as Union Territories to ensure that all Government buses are disabled friendly in accordance with the Harmonized Guidelines. Likewise, the respondents are duty bound to see that private buses also become disabled friendly. Thus, we direct the Government to lay down the plan giving the dates by which the aforesaid task shall be undertaken, keeping in view the directions which are sought by the petitioner in this behalf and the same shall be filed within three months.

  • Comprehensive revision of target deadliness under accessibility of knowledge and ICT Ecosystem. At least 50% of central and state govt. websites are to meet accessibility standards by March 2017. At least 50% of the public documents are to meet accessibility standards by March 2018.

On this action point, the petitioner has sought five directions. Again, there cannot be any dispute that such provisions have to be made as Disabilities Act, 2016 itself mandates that. The only question is about the time schedule. On certain aspects, AIC had itself mentioned the target date. In any case, let there be a study undertaken in this behalf as well by the Union of India and report be filed within three months stating as to by what date(s) compliance shall be made.

  • Bureau of Indian Standards to embed disability aspect in all relevant parts of revised National Building Code.

It is expected that the respondents would regularly update the Harmonized Guidelines keeping in view the provisions of Disabilities Act, 2016 and technological advancement vis-à-vis the needs of persons with disabilities.

  • The target of training additional 200 sign language interpreters by March 2018.

Needful be done in this behalf as well within reasonable time and the Government is directed to file an affidavit within three months stating the time period within which the same can be accomplished.

  • As per the provisions of Sections 60 and 66 of the Disabilities Act, 2016, all States and Union Territories are required to constitute the Central and State Advisory Boards. In order to effectively implement the provisions of the said Act, it becomes the duty of the States and Union Territories to constitute such Advisory Boards. Therefore, we direct these Advisory Boards to be constituted by all States and Union Territories within a period of three months from today.

29) Matter be listed for directions after three months on receiving reports in terms of the aforesaid order. In the reports to be filed, the respondents shall also state the follow-up action taken during the intervening period in the meantime.

[1] 2017 (5) SCALE 288

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