An international-level para-athlete was allegedly forced to sleep on the floor of a Nagpur-Delhi train after being denied a lower berth despite repeated requests. Suvarna Raj, who is wheelchair-bound and has won several medals for India in international table tennis tournaments, was allotted an upper birth instead.
Raj said that she had requested for a lower berth while booking her ticket for the Nagpur-Nizamuddin Express under the physically handicapped quota, and was initially allotted a berth in a coach reserved for differently-abled passengers. However, when she boarded the coach, she discovered that she had been given an upper berth. The 34-year-old told ANI that though she requested the train ticket examiner (TTE) to allot her a lower berth, her request was turned down due to non-availability.
"I asked for a blanket, but I was denied that too. The attendant told me that the compartment has a fixed number of blankets, which had been allotted to passengers. I had paid the full fare. Still, I did not have a seat and had to lie down on the floor near the toilet," she told The Times of India.
The Hindustan Times also reported that the train ticket examiner asked other passengers to swap the berth, but no one agreed. "People were just watching. No one showed any sympathy," Raj said. In the end, Raj, her son and a friend had to sleep on the floor during the overnight journey.
Ironically, Raj was returning to Delhi after attending a seminar on improving accessibility for differently-abled persons in Nagpur. Raj has been wheelchair-bound since a polio infection left her legs paralysed in early childhood. She has won several international medals in table tennis, most notably at the Thailand Para Table Tennis Open in 2013.
After the incident was reported, railways minister Suresh Prabhi ordered an enquiry, but Raj responded to the statement with a concern that has plagued many differently-abled persons in India. "I don't want any enquiry," she tweeted. "I want a permanent solution for personalities in India. We human, citizen first."
The incident is yet another grim reminder of the challenges faced by differently-abled persons while travelling in India. There are countless examples of differently-abled persons being treated with terrible insensitivity at airports and railway stations across the country.
Disability rights activists have been fighting a long battle to make public spaces more accessible. Most recently in February, activist, writer and motivational speaker Virali Modi started an online petition to demand greater accessibility on trains. "The railways treat the disabled as a piece of luggage. This needsto stop," Modi had said.
After her petition went viral, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi and Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu both noted the need for making Indian trains more accessible. Raj's account reveals that several months later little has changed.