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Civil aviation ministry postpones deadline for policy inputs after activist's letter
Shubhankar Adhikari  NEW DELHI | 22nd Feb 2012

day after a teacher suffering from cerebral palsy was forced off a SpiceJet plane in Kolkata, disability activist Vaishnavi Jayakumar shot off a strongly worded letter to the civil aviation ministry. Jayakumar, who is the founder of The Banyan, an NGO in Chennai, says that the airline's move violated the Civil Aviation Rules, section M1 (Carriage by Air of Persons with Disability and/ or Persons with Reduced Mobility).

She adds that she stumbled upon an inconspicuous link on the civil aviation ministry's website seeking "stakeholder" opinion on the draft civil aviation policy. "Organisations and individuals are requested to give their inputs, views and suggestions on aspects (of the draft policy)," the policy document says. Jayakumar writes, "As to my knowledge, the disability community is largely unaware of this policy — indeed the whole of civil society seems to have been excluded from stakeholder discussions." In response to her letter, the civil aviation ministry extended the deadline from February 20 for submitting the inputs to February 27.

Disability activists say that they had no information about the deadline. Says Meenakshi Balasubramaniam, "We were not aware of the deadline. Now that it has been extended, we plan to submit our inputs."

According to her, disabled people have often been asked to get off planes by different airlines. "After Rajiv Ranjan, a cerebral palsy patient, was barred by Air Sahara from flying out of Chennai in 2007, we took up the matter with the DGCA. Till then, there were guidelines for the medically ill but not for disabled passengers. In May 2009, a new set of guidelines came into force. But they are violated often."

"Does the SpiceJet flight captain even have the right to ask a passenger who has got her boarding pass to leave the plane?" Balasubramaniam asks, referring to the incident on Sunday involving Kolkata-based teacher Jeeja Ghosh.Image 2nd

Despite changing attitudes towards the disabled, India still has laws that are outdated. Section 24A of the Aircraft Rules of 1937, for instance, states, "No person shall knowingly carry or permit to be carried, or connive at the carriage of, a person suffering from any mental disorder or epilepsy in any aircraft." This rule has been used to bar people with disabilities from flying. But Balasubramaniam says that the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which India is a signatory, overrides all such archaic laws.

Muralidharan, of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, says there have been at least six cases in the past four-five years where a disabled person has been asked to disembark from the plane. "Such incidents are far more common on trains and buses. The incident involving Ghosh was highlighted because it happened at an airport," he says.

He blames a widespread lack of awareness for the situation. "There is a need for training to be sympathetic towards disabled persons. The facilities at railway stations, bus stops and airports should be upgraded as well. For instance, we have a swanky new terminal at the Delhi airport but it lacks basic facilities for the blind. At railway stations, it's difficult for the disabled to move from one platform to the other or get onto trains, given the heights of platforms."

Shampa Sengupta, a Kolkata-based disability activist, says, "The lack of awareness about cerebral palsy is partly because the government does nothing to publicise the issue, despite provisions. People often harass cerebral palsy patients because they don't understand the problem. Also, people really don't care about a problem until it directly affects them."

Ghosh, the teacher, told The Sunday Guardian that she is yet to decide on her next course of action, after SpiceJet issued an apology to her. But she wants the flight captain, Utprabh Tiwari, to apologise. The chief commissioner for persons with disabilities has issued notices to the DGCA and SpiceJet on action taken by them to compensate Ghosh.

Both SpiceJet and Jet Airways (that now controls Air Sahara) were not available for comment.

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