Volume 2 Issue 11 - June 01, 2004

Polity and disability

Rarely will a politician talk about the problem faced by six-seven crore disabled, writes Javed Abidi.

Picture of Javed Abidi and his campaign team.

Five to 6 per cent of India's population is affected by one form of disability or another. This amounts to a vast mass of six to seven crore disabled Indians, which is more than the entire population of Great Britain or Canada, and definitely more than the population of many states within our country.

All of us talk about human rights but somehow fail to remember that people with disabilities are human too! They have the same aspirations, the same dreams and the same hopes as any one else. Their needs are also the same: education, employment and full social living -- which include simple things like going to a park or a cinema, like any other average person.

Our country gained independence in 1947 and since then, we have progressed a lot. We have become self-sufficient in more ways than one. We have, overall, done quite well. But, somehow, somewhere, we have neglected our citizens with disability. It may not have been deliberate but it surely has been systemic. The failure is not on any one count but it cuts across the whole spectrum of life, society and progress.

We have a world-class educational system with some 300 plus universities but not one where a wheelchair user like me can study with dignity and safety. If a person like me was to take admission, he would have to face steps at every nook and corner. The toilet will be inaccessible. The library, admin block and canteen will be in places where a wheelchair cannot go. So, how does he survive, let alone compete? No wonder, less than 2% of our children and youth with disabilities are able to gain education. Ninety-eight per cent of them are not able to attend school or college -- and the country talks about Education For All!

As far as employment is concerned, the situation is even grimmer. Less than 1% of disabled Indians have regular jobs. Compare this to the figure of 70% disabled Chinese who are employed and are productive. The question is that if China could do it, why couldn't we?

One of the biggest reasons why disabled people have been left behind is due to the lack of access. Neither our public buildings nor our transport systems are barrier-free, allowing a disabled person to travel with ease and dignity. If a disabled person cannot even step out of their house, then where is the question of their gaining education and getting jobs?

It is not that our policy-makers are oblivious to these issues. But do they care? The politician is interested only in a "vote bank" and for some strange reason, does not look at 6-7 crore disabled Indians as such. The politician espouses the cause of farmers, dalits, women, youth, adivasis and freedom fighters but rarely, if at all, will you hear a politician talk about the welfare of people with disabilities.

Picture of some of Javed Abidi's enthusiastic supporters.

India passed a law protecting the rights of the disabled people in December 1995. Congress was in power then. After that came the United Front with H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral as prime ministers. Then came the BJP-led NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. None of them were any different than the other. They all said a lot but did nothing.

When I demanded ambu-lifts at all Indian airports, the Vajpayee government opposed it tooth and nail in the Supreme Court. None other than Soli Sorabjee argued on behalf of the Union. All sorts of silly excuses-from "we don't have the technology" to "we don't have the resources" were given. Ultimately, the government lost the case in late 1998.

The Supreme Court ordered the installation of ambu-lifts at all major airports. Vajpayee used the very same ambu-lifts a couple of years later when he went to Mumbai for his knee operation. Since then, he has used them regularly, in fact, one ambu-lift from the Delhi airport had to be sent over to Agra for the famous Vajpayee-Mushrraf meeting!

After Vajpayee himself faced health problems, we thought the government in general would be more sensitised. But nothing happened. For every little thing, we had to fight every inch of our way. Instead of spending time on constructive activities, we had to organise dharnas, rallies and even hunger strikes from time to time.

We have wondered why our politicians are so insensitive? Even in the General Elections 2004, neither the Congress Manifesto nor the BJP Vision Document had a single word on disability. When we raised the issue vociferously, the Congress deputed Priyanka Gandhi to look into the matter. She ensured that the mistake was rectified and a revised Manifesto was made ready.

However, the BJP remained totally immune to all our lobbying and criticism. Repeated phone calls to the party office were left unanswered.

Now, there is hope -- with a Congress-led government in power at the Centre. Even though Sonia Gandhi has turned down the position of Prime Minister, she is still the Congress Party leader and wields much influence. If there is one politician in this country who is very sensitive to the needs and aspirations of disabled people, it is her.

One sincerely hopes that she will be the saviour in Indian politics that the disabled people of the country have long been looking for.

(The author is the Convenor of the Right of the Disabled Group. This article was originally published in Sahara Time newspaper, on May 22, 2004.)

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