Volume 3 Issue 1 - January 01, 2005

2004 -- The year that was

The year 2004 brought mixed fare for the disability sector. On one hand was the historic enfranchisement of India's disabled voters. On the other, disabled-unfriendliness still prevails in most spheres. Rama Chari looks at what the year gone by meant for the disability sector in India.

If we look back on the year, the progress made in the area of disabled friendly voting process; the impact that the disability sector created at the World Social Forum and the fact that the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) has got opened up for disabled people, undeniably gives us reason to trust that we have advanced. However, the nightmare of the ever-increasing unemployment rate of disabled people; large scale disabled unfriendly constructions continuing to take place all over the country; 14 out of 21 Civil Services still remaining outside the reach of disabled people; lack of a watchdog mechanism in the country even in the ninth year of implementation of Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 – all are reason enough to give us sleepless nights as we enter into 2005.

Picture of ramps being constructed outside the CEC's office in Delhi

The most significant milestone this year was the progress made in the area of making the voting process disabled friendly. Considering the theory that disabled people are not seen as ‘vote banks’ and hence, their rights and needs are not taken seriously by policy makers, this development becomes even more important. The Supreme Court’s timely direction, based on the letter by Disabled Rights Group (DRG) to the then Chief Justice of India resulted in creating ramps, etc, in many parts of India for the General Elections held in April-May 2004. In Delhi alone, about 8,000 ramps were constructed in a matter of just 15 days!

The fight continued when the issue was taken up again at the time of the Assembly/By-elections which were held in October 2004. We moved one more step ahead towards disabled-friendly voting process when Braille Ballot Sheets were made available for visually impaired voters in 9,000 polling stations in Mumbai and Thane Constituencies. The first Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) with Braille numerics was launched and tested at the Asif Nagar Constituency in Hyderabad.

Picture of some of the participants of the national level political convention organised in Delhi

The first National Political Convention of disabled people that took place in New Delhi in March last year raised issues not only regarding political rights but also about political space for disabled people. Some of the exciting suggestions that came up during the course of the discussions were reservations for disabled people in the Lok Sabha; disabled people forming a political party; every party having a disability cell, among others.

The participation of senior leaders from various political parties at the Convention gave us an assurance that the disability sector is being taken seriously by them. It therefore came as a big blow when the political manifestoes of the two major Parties – the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – did not have a mention of disability in them. When the issue was pointed out to them, the Congress Party made an amendment but the other party ignored our appeal.

One unanimous decision that was taken at the Convention was that disabled people should not remain on the political periphery but jump into the fray. Disabled people contesting as independent candidates in the Lok Sabha elections from various constituencies from different parts of the country was a significant step in the direction of active political participation. DRG Convenor Javed Abidi’s independent candidature from the prestigious New Delhi constituency clearly stated to the nation, particularly to the political parties, that the disability sector has finally “arrived” on the political scene! However, the lack of public support to the initiative was a learning experience.

Apart from politics, another important sector that plays a significant role in nation building is the bureaucracy. This year saw the opening up of the IAS for disabled people, which is a noteworthy accomplishment. Rigzian Sampheal, Lokesh Kumar and Ravi Arora, who were discriminated against by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), fought against the system for almost an year with the support of DRG, and managed to get the Service they deserved. They have, in doing so, created history!

The next Civil Services Exams have been announced recently. The number of identified Services for disabled people has gone up from five to seven. However, 14 Services are still outside the reach of persons with disability, which includes Services such as Indian Postal Service, Indian Revenue Service, Indian Civil Accounts Service! Who is to blame for this mishap: the Social Justice Ministry, which is the nodal Ministry; or the Chief Commissioner’s office, which has been established specifically for safeguarding the rights of disabled people? This has happened in spite of all the pressure that was created not just by the disability activists but also by the media!

Picture of a candlelight protest at the World Social Forum in Mumbai

The social sector, another important segment, is gaining prominence all over the world. The World Social Forum (WSF), the biggest social sector event in the world, held in Mumbai in January 2004, played an important role in this growth. The disability sector reached out to other social sector organisations and made its presence felt at the WSF – another significant milestone. About 200 disabled people from all parts of India converged at the WSF with the intention of participating actively in debates and discussions concerning various relevant development issues and for ensuring that disability becomes a part of their discourse. However, when they reached the venue of the WSF, they realised that the place was completely inaccessible. The group of 200 disabled people then turned the event to their advantage by holding protest rallies and candlelight vigils, which not only yielded them apologies from the organisers and a promise to make the future forums disabled friendly but also it resulted in gaining huge visibility to disability issues in the social sector community.

The judiciary is another key sector which has played an important role in the disability movement and cannot be ignored. The Delhi High Court’s interpretation of ‘Dyslexia’ as a disability is certainly a landmark judgment. This is significant because learning disabilities are not mentioned as ‘disabilities’ under The Disability Act, 1995. It also sets a precedent for other disabilities that are not outside the scope of the Act.

The most noteworthy contribution of the judiciary last year, which would be written in golden words in disability history, is the judgment in case of Civil Appeal No. 25: Indian Banks Association versus Devkala Consultancy Service and others. The case was heard by the then Chief Justice of India, on the same day, as the case of DRG against the Election Commission. The then Chief Justice of India, taking note of the non-implementation of The Disability Act, gave a historic judgment. He directed the illegal money acquired by the banks (on account of rounding up of interest rates) – and which amounted to approximately Rs 800 crore – should be used to set up a Trust which would work towards the implementation of The Disability Act, 1995.

One of the setbacks was the dismissal of the case against DoPT filed by DRG vis-a-vis discrimination against disabled people in Civil Services. The Judges who were hearing the case felt that justice had been done to the disabled candidates and that there is no need for further hearing, which was unfortunate! The fact of the matter was that the case was for a larger policy change and not so much about the individuals, which the Delhi High Court failed to understand.

The corporate sector, the biggest sector second only to the Government, has always been indifferent to the issue of disability. The positive change over the years is that there is now more talk but action is still lacking and leaves much to be desired. Last year was no different. However, Shell India’s small but impactful proactive action should be noted and appreciated. Shell India’s first petrol outlet in Bangalore has been made disabled friendly and has disabled employees. Disability is part of the company’s sustainable development policy, which will ensure that the all the outlets that it is planning all over the country will be disabled-friendly.

As we enter the year 2005, which will be the 10th anniversary of The Disability Act, there are serious concerns that we cannot ignore. The advertisement that appeared in the employment sections of the newspaper seeking applications for the post of Chief Commissioners for Persons with Disability (CCPD) was like a slap in the face of the disability movement. By doing that, the babus of the Ministry of Social Justice have reduced the august post to a mere job! It was not surprising that the advertisement went unnoticed by most people in the sector, including some big NGOs in New Delhi!

Even after nine years, the majority of the States do not have full time Commissioners. The Amendment to the Disability Act (which has been pending for the last three years); the reconstitution of National Disability Commission; the status of CCPD, the announcement of an incentives policy, etc, are issues that need serious consideration.

Access remains an issue of major concern, without which talking of anything else is hypothetical. Each of us who are concerned about disability have a role to play in this. Let’s welcome the new year with a pledge to actively play the role of a watchdog and to not allow any construction to come up which is disabled un-friendly in our locality/area.

Wishing all the readers of DNIS a very happy new year!

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