Shampa Sengupta on the rakhi as a means of sensitizing public transport workers to the concerns of persons with disabilities in Kolkata

Rabindranath Tagore taught Bengal how to use the rakhi as a symbol of social bonding by taking it beyond the brother-sister bonding and protection narrative and turning it into a Hindu-Muslim friendship story. The fact that thousands of Bengalis came out to tie rakhi on each other’s hands in 1905 to prevent the partition of Bengal is a story Bengalis are very fond of. And the relevance of this part of history, particularly at a time when Hindu-Muslim relationships are strained in West Bengal, makes it dearer to us.

Different political parties use the rakhi to enhance their association with the general public. In recent times we have seen in social media how NGOs or different Identity based groups, for example transgender community groups, also use Raksha Bandhan day to make their concerns visible. Different disability rights groups all over India try to make this festival more inclusive – rakhis made by persons with disabilities are sold, special events are organised where disabled and non-disabled children spend time together and tie rakhi to each other to strengthen their bonds.

However, in Kolkata, some of us have witnessed Raksha Bandhan celebrations of a different hue – persons with disabilities tying rakhi on the hands of bus conductors and drivers, and other transport workers. It’s important to understand here that one of the commonest problems that persons with disabilities face on the roads of Kolkata is to commute by public transport.

This second photograph is also from the event organized by the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP) outside the South City Mall in Kolkata on Raksha Bandhan this year (August 7, 2017). A young man with a disability in both his arms ties a ‘rakhi’ on the right wrist of a traffic police man with his feet. The police man bends forward and looks on appreciatively, as one of his colleagues takes a photograph from his mobile phone camera in the background. Three women with disabilities, all seated on wheel chairs, can also be seen next to the man tying the ‘rakhi’. A number of IICP volunteers and other people can be seen moving around and cheering for the ‘rakhi’ ritual. Behind the wheelchairs is the backside of a truck on which a small IICP flex banner is displayed (the name of the organization and their logo is printed on the banner). Photo credit: Jeeja Ghosh Nag

Apart from poor physical infrastructural, one needs to remember that the attitudinal problem is more severe. A large number of persons with disabilities complain that bus conductors don’t stop the vehicle when they see them waiting at the bus stop. This behaviour is possibly rooted in the fear that these passengers won’t buy tickets and demand ‘free rides’. We have heard of complaints of persons with disabilities being denied entry into buses; even if they manage to board the bus, they are ridiculed, bullied and in some cases even thrown out of the bus!

Threats and abuses by bus conductors are a daily matter in the lives of persons with disabilities – one loses count of the number of times one hears about such incidents. Rarely does one hear about an official complaint being filed against such behaviour. But we also have some examples of cases being filed with the Honourable Calcutta High Court against harassment faced in public transport.

In a public interest litigation filed by the Integrated Disabled Employees’ Association in 2008, the court heard a complaint of harassment faced by a disabled traveller in a private bus in Kolkata. The court directed a number of measures to protect the rights of persons with disabilities with regard to transport accessibility. Among them was reservation of two seats for the blind and / or for orthopaedically or congenitally disabled persons in all the buses (including the private buses and mini buses).

The West Bengal government was also directed to execute provisions for installing auditory signals at red light crossings for the benefit of persons with visual disabilities; curb cuts and slopes in pavements for easy access for wheel chair users; engraving surfaces of the zebra crossings for the blind or for persons with low vision; devising appropriate symbols of disability; and installing warning signals at appropriate places.

Quote: In Kolkata, some of us have witnessed Raksha Bandhan celebrations of a different hue – persons with disabilities tying 'rakhi' on the hands of bus conductors and drivers, and other transport workers. It’s important to understand here that one of the commonest problems that persons with disabilities face on the roads of Kolkata is to commute by public transport.The government was asked to consider the possibility of launching special disabled- friendly buses on important roads and buses exclusively for persons with disabilities. Moreover, the court said that the government ought to provide for free travel facilities to persons with disabilities in trams and buses owned by the state transport undertakings. In addition, a companion should also be allowed to travel for free. In spite of these court orders and various provisions under the law, there has been no perceptible change, and till date the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 has not been implemented in the right spirit.

Even in this atmosphere of official apathy, something needs to done to sensitize the transport workers to the predicament of persons with disabilities. About 10 years ago, a small NGO working for persons with disabilities in Kolkata came up with the idea that instead of complaining regularly, why not become friends with the transport workers? And what better way to forge friendship than using the occasion of Raksha Bandhan?

Things started in a small way. But this year the Office of the Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, West Bengal took up this idea and an event was organised at Karunamoyee Bus Terminus at Salt Lake on Raksha Bandhan day (August 7, 2017). A similar event took place in front of the South City Mall, which was organised by the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP). In the invitation to the event, Jeeja Ghosh Nag, Advocacy Officer, IICP wrote that the event aimed to spread the message of fraternity, harmony and brotherhood and was especially meant for providers of public transport.

This writer had the opportunity of witnessing similar events a few years ago. She clearly remembers how a bus driver, who came down from his bus to get a rakhi tied by a blind woman, started crying as he grabbed the microphone and declared that he would now never speed away if he were to see a person with a disability waiting at a bus stop.

Years have passed and we don’t know if the bus driver kept his promise. For persons with disabilities in Bengal every single move matters – whether it’s a court order or an emotional bus driver’s pledge – every little bit helps to make their journey towards their destination smoother.

About the main photo: Photograph shows an event organized by the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy just outside the South City Mall in Kolkata on Rakshan Bandhan day this year (August 7, 2017). The second photograph is also from the same event. All photo credits: Jeeja Ghosh Nag