Airport check of artificial leg leaves marketing executive in tears


July 12, 2013

NEW DELHI: Suranjana Ghosh Aikara's harrowing experience of boarding a flight from Mumbai to Delhi was one of the most shared stories on social networking sites on Thursday.

July 12, 2013

NEW DELHI: Suranjana Ghosh Aikara's harrowing experience of boarding a flight from Mumbai to Delhi was one of the most shared stories on social networking sites on Thursday.

The security staff at the airport had demanded that this 37-year-old marketing professional from Mumbai take off her prosthetic leg to be separately passed through security check. Suranjana dreads this while travelling in India since this means "an intrusive security screening which would require me to strip. Why strip? Because I am an above knee amputee," she said in her moving post.

She argued with them, showed them her disability certificate and reasoned with senior security officers. After a long, difficult and "humiliating" experience which left her completely drained, she was physically frisked and allowed an explosive trace detector (ETD) test.

She had an even more painful experience in 2011. She was at Delhi's T3 terminal and was asked to remove her artificial leg for the first time. She approached senior officers and yelled loudly to draw the attention of other passengers but soon "was reduced to tears. With folded hands, I begged them to let me go as I had a genuine problem. I showed them my business card. The lady officer-in-charge said something along the lines of 'Aise nahi karte toh kaise pata chalta ki aap terrorist nahi hain'? (If we hadn't put you through this, how would we have known that you're not a terrorist?). In minutes, from a smartly dressed, self-confident woman and professional, I had been reduced to a spectacle to be mocked at. My dignity and self-respect were totally battered," she recollects.

Strangely, Suranjana and other people with disabilities have never experienced this at airports abroad. Many airports have body scanners and elsewhere, an ETD is used. Disability rights activist Javed Abidi was once asked to get up from the wheelchair so that it could be screened separately but he did not budge. In fact, he makes it a point to create a fuss and ask security officials why they don't have the technology to search people with disability without inconveniencing or humiliating them. He has received numerous complaints of people being harassed and has conveyed this to the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS).

"I have never been subjected to this abroad — in Europe, Africa or even other parts of Asia. When I am travelling to US or Europe, they usually use a small machine to screen the wheelchair. They use a special kind of paper or a pair of gloves that is used to lightly pat your prosthetic limb or wheelchair and then that paper or the gloves are passed through the machine to check for any trace of explosives. It's a dignified process and security personnel make sure you are comfortable," says Abidi.

Senior CISF officers say they are only sticking to the rules and an EDT can only detect explosives. Removing a prosthetic limb is a must for security and has to be complied with though at times they do let people pass if convinced about their genuineness. Both CISF and BCAS refused to comment officially on the security procedure.

Suranjana explains that the emotional impact of the limb being removed apart, the procedure is complicated and unnecessary. Being in a senior position in marketing, she travels frequently. Getting back into the limb can be tedious as the person has to pull the stump (residual limb) into the socket of the artificial limb. Also, crepe bandage is needed to secure the limb.

On July 5, when Suranjana was travelling with her mother, her ordeal didn't end with the security officials allowing her to undergo just the ETD test. "I was led to a separately screened-off area. The area was completely open from the top; there was no door that could be locked. Lady officer No. 2 physically frisked me and did the ETD test. I was sweaty with the stress and my eyes were streaming with tears by this time. I was overwhelmed by the effort and the humiliation that I was subjected to for something that should have been an easy process." she says. This lack of sensitivity is what rankles the most.

Entrepreneur Sanjana Goyal who has muscular dystrophy travels quite often and cannot leave her wheelchair during security check. When she was travelling from Chandigarh recently, security officials allowed her to go through the check sitting in her wheelchair. But they asked her to pay Rs 10,000 extra because her wheelchair was being counted as luggage. "The wheelchair acts as my limb. Do you count the weight of anyone's limbs separately? I argued with them and finally managed to explain that for a disabled person, prosthetic limbs or the wheelchair are almost like parts of the body," she said.

Security personnel at Delhi airport usually ask Suvarna Raj, a government employee, to check in her wheelchair and use another one provided by the airport personnel.

Disability and women's rights activist Anita Ghai, however, says her experience has been different. She uses calipers and is a wheelchair user but she has never been asked to get off her wheelchair or get the calipers screened separately. "They have scanned me while I am on the wheelchair. If they have asked a person to take off her prosthetic leg, it can hurt her sentiments. It can be humiliating, especially for a woman with disability," she says.

Most activists agreed that security is paramount but felt that airport staff can opt for technology that is available at international airports and display more sensitivity.

Courtesy: TOI