While on 16th October, 2019, The Supreme Court completed the hearings on the Ram Janmabhoomi- Babri Masjid Case and reserved its verdict, another landmark Order on access to religious places for persons with disabilities issue was passed by the Court of the State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (SCPD) Delhi, on the same day. The Court ordered all religious places in Delhi to incorporate accessibility in a time-bound manner, to ensure inclusive worship for all, including devotees with disabilities and the elderly.
In view of the mandatory provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016, the Court, in July 2017, took Suo Motu cognizance of the inaccessible built environment at religious places in Delhi and issued notices to all District Magistrates seeking information. None of the respondents submitted the sought information and action plan in respect of the places of worship apparently because most of these belonged to private establishments/trusts.
In May 2018, all the respondents (11 District Magistrates of Govt. of NCT of Delhi) were advised to take appropriate action to make the places of worship in their districts accessible for persons with disabilities to ensure that they are also able to enjoy their right to worship on an equal basis with others. They were also requested to obtain information from the concerned authority/ organization and an action plan with timelines to make each place of worship accessible and to send a consolidated list to the Court by 4th July 2018.
Following no response from the concerned District Magistrates except DM, South East, and DM, North-East despite reminders, suo motu cases were registered.
It is pertinent to note here that the Hon’ble State Commissioner Sh. T.D. Dhariyal, himself visited several religious sites in Delhi across faiths and found none of them accessible.
Some District Magistrates had submitted Police Station-wise information, while others gave sub-division-wise information and District Disaster Management Authority-wise. However, the Hon’ble court in its order appreciated the action taken the report by District Magistrate (West), Ms. Neha Bansal who submitted physical verification of 202 places of worship while also setting 31.03.2020 as the target date for making rest of the places of worship accessible.
During the course of four hearings and based on the physical verification by the functionaries of the Court and the information submitted by the concerned District Magistrates, the following was observed:
Some districts had not indicated all the places of worship in their Districts.
The information about the accessibility or otherwise in respect of many places of worship was either not correct or was not accurate. This indicated that the information was supplied without verification and due care.
The Court observed in the Order that the management functionaries of the trusts/those managing the places of worship and delivering ‘religious services’ to the public at large should be made aware by the concerned District Magistrates about the time-bound mandate of the Act (RPWD) to make “public buildings” and “public facilities and services” accessible and be guided and helped in making the places of worship including the sanctum sanctorum, the points of distribution / selling of prasad, material for worship like flowers, drinking water faucets, toilets, and parking, if any, etc., accessible.
“Action plan to make the inaccessible places of worship accessible in a time-bound manner in accordance with the prescribed guidelines be made by 05.07.2019 and implemented under intimation to the Monitoring Committee constituted by Govt. of NCT of Delhi for monitoring implementation of action plans,” the Court noted.
“…also all the concerned managements of the religious places be issued appropriate directions to provide for appropriate accessible facilities to persons with disabilities within a given time frame not exceeding 2 to 3 months.”
On who will meet the cost of accessibility improvements, the Court stated in its Order: “It is clarified that there is no scheme of Govt. of India or the State Govt. at present to provide funds for this purpose. Making the existing “public buildings” which means “a Government or private building, used or accessed by the public at large, including a building used for religious purpose like Mandir/ Gurudwaras /Masjids/ Churches, etc. or any other place of worship, is the sole responsibility of the concerned trusts/committees/
Apart from issuing a brief checklist for authorities to ensure whether a religious place follows accessibility or not, the Court has also uploaded on its website the “Guidelines for Making the Religious Places Accessible” published by the Office of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, Govt. of India with the help of Svayam – a voluntary organisation working on accessibility rights – for ready reference for stakeholders and authorities. The Court has also expressed that all concerned are advised to disseminate the guidelines and the checklist to the concerned functionaries of the places of worship in NCT of Delhi for implementation.
The Court directed the Monitoring Committee headed by Principal Secretary, Urban Development, Govt. of NCT of Delhi for monitoring implementation of action plans for making built environment and accessible in at places of worship across NCT of Delhi and inform the Court on the action taken on the recommendations within 3 months from the date of receipt of the order.
After launch of Accessible India Campaign in December 2015, and subsequent notification of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, accessibility in public buildings (both private & government) has been made mandatory [Section 45, read with Section 2 (W) & RPWD Rules, Chapter VI, Section-15 (1-a)] and religious buildings are covered within the scope of the Act.
To fill the vacuum, Svayam has contributed its humble but change-making effort by coming up with this booklet “Guidelines for Making Religious Places Accessible” and hope all management committees overseeing religious sites to make a sustained effort in providing minimum accessibility features at their shrines/place of worship/prayer, as it will not only help the devotees with disabilities, but also the elderly, women, sick and injured believers as well as setting new benchmarks of accessible & inclusive religious places.
Also Read: Supreme Court decriminalizes adultery
Commenting on the landmark Order, Ms. Sminu Jindal, Founder-Chairperson, Svayam said: “The Law of God tells us that all humans have equal rights to seek Him and pray at their chosen places. I hope the management committees of various religious places take advantage of the recommendations/tips given in this first-of-its-kind booklet in the country “Guidelines for Making Religious Places Accessible” to make their shrines accessible so that no one is left behind in their pursuit of spirituality. This Order will help in fulfilling the objectives of the RPWD Act 2016.”