By Apoorv Kulkarni
Go to any start-up meet or a business conference today, and you would have one common takeaway-a problem is really an opportunity waiting to be unlocked. What's great is that everybody – from students to small businesses, large enterprises and even the Government – is adopting this perspective. As a result, India is getting recognized as the land of a billion opportunities. One such unlock for a multi-billion-dollar opportunity is building safe, reliable and affordable urban transportation solutions for Persons with Disability.
According to the World Bank, India is home to about 80 million Persons with Disability. At roughly 6% of the population, this number could be a conservative estimate as it is less than half of the global benchmark. The United Nations estimates that globally one billion people or 15% of the population lives with a disability including visual, hearing & speech, locomotor, intellectual and other forms of disability. The global community of Persons with Disability influences $8 trillion of disposable income. This makes it one of the few remaining large untapped markets.
Persons with Disability need safe, reliable and affordable transportation to access economic, educational and social opportunities. However, their mobility is often constrained by a lack of suitable (accessible) urban transportation. For instance, persons in a wheelchair are unable to use buses because they are unable to board them. Similarly, independently hailing an auto on the street is virtually impossible for persons living with a visual disability.
Nipun Malhotra, CEO, Nipman Foundation and Executive Director Nipman Fastener Industries explains, "Just like any other citizen, Persons with Disability are willing to pay for safe, reliable and affordable transportation. However, the unavailability of such transport alternatives is disqualifying millions of disabled Indians from accessing economic opportunities."
Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo – the World Bank's Global Advisor on Disability – elaborates, "You have to think of transport as an equalizer, a catalyst that facilitates access to many other sectors. Mobility improvements are key because transport gives you access to jobs, schools, healthcare, markets, and leisure". The gravity of the problem coupled with access to large disposable income is indicative of the size of the opportunity. India needs progressive and proactive measures from the Government to tap into this market.
Inaccessible (unsafe, unreliable or difficult to use) transport infrastructure can be attributed to a few factors.
According to a 2012 World Bank study, accessibility is rarely included as a key success parameter at the planning stage. Consequently, it is not given its due importance during the design and procurement phase. The laws to protect the rights of PwD are not supported by a robust regulatory framework and enforcement mechanism. Further, national and international guidelines for Universal Accessibility are not uniformly applied during project implementation. This inhibits the development of suitable transport solutions. Lastly, transport services fail to be inclusive when transport personnel is not sensitized and trained to support Persons with Disability.
Many people wrongly assume that making transport infrastructure accessible is expensive and might not deliver commensurate returns. However, a 2006 World Bank study conducted in India demonstrates otherwise. According to this study, accessibility features account for less than one percent of the project cost when included right from the planning stage. These accessibility features deliver benefits such as increased mobility, improved quality of travel time and enhanced safety for all citizens irrespective of their disability status. For transport operators, this translates into increased revenue.
First, the number of rides taken by Persons with Disability increases (as observed in a Transportation District in the United States). Second, the willingness to pay for non-disabled individuals goes up as illustrated in the 2016 Report of the International Transport Forum. Improved accessibility also enhances overall safety. As an example, in 2017, 56 pedestrians died every day in road accidents in the Country. When footpaths become more accessible for say, wheelchair users, other people are also more likely to use it. This, in turn, would reduce pedestrian deaths. Accessibility is just a no-brainer given all the benefits it delivers for everybody.
The fact is that the failure to create accessible transport systems is actually costing India in the form of a lost economic dividend. According to the International Labor Organization, the cost of excluding Persons with Disability from the workforce could be as high as 7% of GDP. Given India's 2018-19 GDP of $2.68T, this represents a lost opportunity of over $180 Billion.
The following steps by the Government could help in unlocking this economic opportunity:
Formulate a National Procurement Policy with an emphasis on accessibility. This will help jumpstart an ecosystem for universally accessible products and services. India can take inspiration from countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom for using government procurement as an effective public policy tool.
Encourage automotive manufacturers and private transport operators to invest in accessibility through various fiscal incentives including direct and indirect tax benefits. Accessibility as a unique selling proposition would also help in generating foreign exchange revenue from the western markets experiencing population aging.
Strengthen the regulatory framework and enforcement mechanism to improve the effectiveness of the existing disability laws in the Country.
Include Accessibility as a key success parameter along with dedicated budgets in all projects right from the planning stage. Make Accessibility Impact Assessment (AIA) along with a consultation with Persons with Disability mandatory for getting project approvals and funding.
When empowered with an accessible environment, a larger number of Persons with Disability can become net contributors to the economy and play their part in nation-building. Therefore, as India gets poised to sprint towards a $5T economy, we must also prioritize accessibility. After all, India stands by Prime Minister Modi's motto, "Sabka Sath, sabka Vikas, sabka vishwas" (together with all, development for all, trust of all), right?
(The author leads the Accessibility track at OMI. Views expressed are personal.)