India commits massive sums to its transportation infrastructure. The national transportation infrastructure pipeline between 2020 and 2025 totals $574 billion, most of which targets roads and railways. The demographic profile of transport network users is ageing. Within the next three decades, it is projected that the population of Indians over the age of 60 will exceed 300 million, accounting for nearly one in five persons living in the county.
The current state of affairs
Disability and chronic morbidity among India’s elderly have been increasing substantially in recent years. It is thus important that transport facilities and services adhere to universal design standards in order to accommodate a broad range of users.
Examples of universal design features include wide walkways, low-floor buses, smooth walking surfaces, and automatic door openers in public transportation vehicles. Universal design should provide seamless mobility options from origin to destination for the greatest possible range of potential users, including the elderly. It should consider obstacles in buildings, transportation terminals, footpath, roads and vehicles. Universal design also requires consideration of mobility aids, such as canes, walkers, and guide dogs.
Although only about one-third of India’s population resides in cities, the country is steadily becoming more urbanised. Sustainable Development Goal 11 focuses on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. A target under the goal (11.2) is to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety—notably by expanding public transport—with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons by 2030.
One indicator used to assess progress toward this target is the proportion of population that has convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and persons with disabilities. The present reality, though, is that many older Indians confront obstacles to getting around.
Elderly persons participating in a study on active aging in New Delhi and Chennai reported that access routes between home and neighbourhood public spaces were not designed and maintained effectively to meet the needs of older adults with mobility difficulties. Older people in Delhi cite difficulties when bus drivers do not stop close enough to the curb for them to get on and off the bus without risking injury. Many older pedestrians report challenges in safely navigating complex traffic conditions.
The study found that selecting a safe gap in which to cross in front of oncoming traffic is a major problem for older adults. The elderly say they feel vulnerable to increasing levels of motorised traffic and lack of priority given to pedestrian road users in local planning policy. As a result, some older adults do not leave their home alone or are dependent on others to move around the community, contributing to a sense of vulnerability and isolation.
Steps taken, but limited results
Some steps have been taken at the national level to make transportation more inclusive, such as the launch of the Accessible India campaign in December 2015, and a provision on accessible transport included in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. Additionally, the Ministry of Culture has drafted general accessibility standards providing for harmonised and barrier-free environments at protected sites, monuments, libraries and museums. However, these measures have yielded limited on-the-ground results.
Implementation of the Accessible India campaign has been very slow, for example in creating model railway stations with facilities for people with disabilities A parliamentary standing committee recently assessed that progress in improving accessibility at airports and in road transport has been “discouraging”.
A report by Helpage India provided recommendations to make transportation in Udaipur, Rajasthan better suited to older persons. These include improving design of buses and auto rickshaws to facilitate use by older persons, making affordable and comfortable transport facilities available at night, sensitising auto rickshaw drivers toward older persons, strictly enforcing traffic rules and making arrangements for special emergency service for older persons in case of road accidents.
Some steps have been taken to respond to the transport needs of India’s elderly. For example, several states provide discounted travel for those 65 or older on public buses. A few waive fares completely for older adults. Discounted fares are important for older persons who do not enjoy a pension or have only a meagre income. The Punjab government has reserved 15 seats for women, physically challenged and senior citizens in all government and private buses. India’s Ministry of Railways has overseen the introduction of wheelchair ramps at the entry to important railway stations, and train coaches with handrails, space for wheelchairs and toilets designed for disabled persons.
Much remains to be done
Notwithstanding these and other positive developments, India has a long way to go to fulfil the objectives of legislation and of domestic and international initiatives. To ensure that a large and growing share of the population is not marginalised by mobility constraints, the federal, state, union territory and municipal governments must strengthen their commitment to ensuring inclusive transport for India’s elderly.
Bhargavi is a second year public policy student at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. Before this, she completed a postgraduate diploma in Liberal Studies from Ashoka University, India and a bachelor’s in economics from the University of Delhi. She has worked in the policy space of behavioural sciences, sexual and reproductive health, and criminal justice against women. Bhargavi also leads a youth collective called ‘Sang’ which is working with underprivileged communities in India to help fight poverty and injustices against women.
Bart W. Édes
Bart W. Édes is Professor of Practice at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development, and a former director for social development at the Asian Development Bank. Bart is a policy analyst, commentator, and author of Learning From Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption (2021). An APF Canada Distinguished Fellow, he focuses on developing Asian economies, international development, cross-border trade and investment, innovation, social policies, and transformative trends reshaping the world.