Volume 8 Issue 1 - January 01, 2011

A new disability rights law that lost its way!

Convenor, D.R.G., Javed Abidi with State Disability Commissioner, Karnataka, K.V. Rajanna at the State Consultation on New Law  in Bengaluru on August 30, 2010

It has been 8 long months since the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment finally conceded to the demand for a new disability law based on U.N.C.R.P.D. However, what could have been one of the greatest exercise in the history of the Indian disability movement has been made into an abject mockery of the spirit ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’. As the Committee takes one wrong turn after the other, Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. takes a look at a process gone seriously wrong.

On April 30, 2010, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (M.S.J.E.) finally constituted a Committee to draft a new disability law based on U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (U.N.C.R.P.D.). 7 months of advocacy led by the Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) had finally paid off. However, the first step that M.S.J.E. took was against the very spirit of U.N.C.R.P.D. – the 27 odd member Committee had only 3 people with disabilities! Finally, after a candle light vigil and a hunger strike, a few more disabled leaders were added. However, things have gone from bad to worse in the past few months, leaving the sector sadly and badly divided. Here’s a recap of what happened.

1: The original time frame given to the Committee was 4 months; the deadline was August 31. Even before the Committee met, the Chairperson met the Minister and sought an extension of 2 months till October end. Then the Committee gave itself another extension of 2 months till December end – double the original time given by the Ministry. This deadline was also not met and now they have taken another extension till March 31. Much like that famous Bollywood film dialogue ‘Tarikh ke upar tarikh’!!

2: The Committee was formed on April 30 and did not have its first meeting till June 10. A whole 40 days later. Even then, the meeting was for a few hours. The next meeting again was another 40 days later on July 22, again for only a few hours.

3: Substantive issues were never discussed. The question of including the National Trust and the Rehabilitation Council of India (R.C.I.) into the new law so as to make it truly comprehensive and in consonance with U.N.C.R.P.D. was not debated. The Committee’s position on psychosocial disabilities and people living with mental illness and the whole debate on full legal capacity was never clearly settled. Sub – Groups were formed on various topics which met inadequately and came out with reports which were severely critiqued by experts. In the end, the Committee outsourced its work to a Legal Consultant for a hefty fee.

4: There was severe criticism from the sector that the Committee Members made little effort to dialogue with subject experts and people with disabilities. In fact, some subject experts even offered to bear their own travel costs for attending the Sub - Group meetings. But they were denied admission into the ‘exclusive’ meetings of the ‘elite’ group!

Participants during the State Consultation on New Law in Bengaluru on August 30, 2010

The larger demand of the sector is to go in for a comprehensive disability law which will include the National Trust, the Rehabilitation Council and the rights of persons with psychosocial disabilities and people living with mental illness. This would enhance not only the resources but also the powers of the National Trust and R.C.I. and would help them function better. Also, the multiplicity of authorities which exists today because of multiple laws would go away and people at the grassroots will have an easy, single window access to all their rights. The basic premise for this vision was that post U.N.C.R.P.D. you cannot have a disability law that does not talk about human resource development, a body to implement supported decision making and/or full legal capacity; and address the rights of persons with psychosocial disabilities and people living with mental illness.

However, the Committee totally brushed aside that idea by saying that it was only ‘one group’ that was thinking that way and that it was not a larger mandate of the entire disability sector. The Committee chose to ignore all those names that had raised and supported this demand - tall names from across the country and across disabilities whose credentials cannot ever be questioned. But in a very narrow take, the Committee made this whole issue a person centric one. The Committee refused to recognise the fact that several Consultations were held across the country where participants from various disabilities and organisations had unanimously supported the idea of one comprehensive law. Several E-mails were also sent to the Committee by various disabled leaders and organisations which again, were not even considered.

Finally, just when the Committee agreed to examine the possibility of one comprehensive law (as opposed to the present regime of multiple laws), the Legal Consultant threw in a googly and raised the idea of a ‘Disability Code’ and all hell broke loose. What the Legal Consultant was now proposing was basically that there would be a total of 6 separate legislations:

i: The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act; ii: The National Trust Act; iii: The Rehabilitation Council of India Act; iv: The Mental Health Act; v: The Disability Rights Authority Act and vi: The Disability Code.

The question many asked was how can you have the rights of disabled people in one law and the implementing mechanisms in another law? And would all these 6 legislations, including the amended National Trust Act, the amended R.C.I. Act and the amended Mental Health Act go to Parliament simultaneously? And if they don’t, then how will things work; how would one avoid conflict; and how would one ever have a law that would truly reflect the letter and spirit of U.N.C.R.P.D.? Neither the Legal Consultant nor the Committee ever considered explaining as to why all the provisions of all the present laws could not be put under one law. The only explanation given was that a law with more than 200 pages would become unwieldy and therefore, it will be difficult to implement. This excuse has been pooh poohed by legal luminaries!

At the Disabled People’s Convention organised in New Delhi on December 1 and 2, attended by 150 disabled activists, professionals and leaders from across the country, the working draft got an average rating of only 3.5 out of 10. The chapters left a lot to be desired.

A meeting with ‘civil society’ which was to be held on December 8 also got cancelled. The final nail was when Members of the Committee started resigning at the way in which the Committee was functioning. The major grievance was that the Committee would not listen to the voice of people with disabilities, that dissenting voices within the Committee were not being heard and that a few Members along with the Legal Consultant were bulldozing their way through the process.

Disabled activists during a protest outside Minister, Social Justice and Empowerment, Mukul Wasnik

Rajiv Rajan was the first to resign. G. Syamala, A.S. Narayanan and Bhargavi Davar followed. With so many resignations by disabled people from the Committee and amidst growing criticism from the sector, there was a demand that the Committee’s meeting on January 2 should be postponed. However, the Committee went ahead with this meeting. No efforts were made to bring back the Members who had resigned. Their resignations were not even discussed; the reasons brushed under the carpet. Funny part is, their resignations have not even been officially accepted.

A select few Members of the Committee went to meet the Minister, Mukul Wasnik. The dissenting voices were not invited. The Minister asked these Members to stick to their mandate, which according to the now diminished Committee is ‘to draft a law in consonance with U.N.C.R.P.D. to replace the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995’. What is now being feared is that the Committee probably will replace a bad law with a bad law and an incomplete law with an incomplete law, just so long as it is ‘new’!!

As of now, the idea of a Disability Code has gone for a six. So has the idea of a one comprehensive law (atleast for the time being). The Committee, very unfortunately, has gone back to from where it all began – the classical debate of retaining the present regime of multiple legislations for different disabilities or amalgamating all existing legislations into one mother legislation, one comprehensive law. A law which enshrines ALL the rights of ALL the disabled people.

The Committee obviously has a shelf life. Now, on March 31, at the end of 11 precious months, the Committee will finally submit a draft. Their role (and their false sense of glory and power) will end on that day and they will go back to being leaders (self styled or otherwise!) of their own little constituencies. What will happen thereafter? The highest probability is that in the light of U.N.C.R.P.D., a half baked law is unlikely to even see the light of the day. Will this draft then face the same fate as the last draft of the Amendments to the Disability Act of 1995 Bill? Will this Committee face the same ignominy as that Committee?

If so, then who will be accountable for the precious resources spent on a possible pointless exercise? Who will be accountable for the 18 months (seven months taken by the Minister and 11 by the Committee) already wasted at the cost of the average disabled Indian out there? Guess, one particular ‘self styled leader’ or even a new scapegoat could always be blamed for everything.

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