Volume 4 Issue 5 - March 01, 2006

There is something for everyone in the Railway Budget, says Lalu! But what about disabled people?

The disability sector came within the smelling distance of India’s first disabled friendly Railway Budget. But it was betrayed once gain, despite a personal promise by the Railway Minister. Parvinder Singh takes a look at the high drama that took place in Delhi in the past two weeks.

 DRG Convenor Javed Abidi leading a delegation to meet Railway Minister a day before Railways Budget 2006-07

We live in interesting times. This clich้ best captures the mood of a shell shocked disability sector since the time the Railway Budget 2006-2007 was announced. One needs to look at the events of the days preceding 24th February noon, when Railway Minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, unveiled the budget in Parliament, to understand the reasons for this sense of betrayal.

A high intensity advocacy campaign, with an impromptu coming together of the disability sector, highlighted by forceful dharnas outside Railway Minister Lalu Prasad’s official residence led to a meeting between the Minister and leaders of Disabled Rights Grroup (D.R.G.). This happened barely 24 hours before the announcement of the budget. But all the hard work ended only in disappointment for the disability sector.

While the Minister buttressed his pro-poor image (read vote bank), the recommendations by disability sector and his personal assurance to look into them were sacrificed on the altar of populism. His budget has nothing for disabled people by way of either making the world’s second largest rail network accessible or fulfilling its legal duty of providing 3% jobs to disabled people, in its 1.4 million strong workforce, as mandated under the Disability Act 1995.

In the days before the budget, the disability sector received a resounding support for its demands through a Delhi High Court Order in which the judges categorically stated that Railways have not implemented the provisions of the Disability Act 1995. The Hon’ble Judges also did not mince words and gave specific instructions to the Ministry to make the trains and associated services accessible in a time-bound manner.

On the eve of the Railway Budget, when 200 disability activists pitched outside 25 Tuglak Road - residence of the Railway Minister, D.R.G. found support from Lok Sabha Speaker, Shri Somnath Chatterjee, who wrote a personal letter to the Minister urging him to take a positive note of the demands of D.R.G.

 A wheelchair user has to often go through these extremely dangerous parcel ways. This picture was taken at New Delhi Railway station.

All this went unnoticed by those who sit in the ivory towers and decide on how resources-- read dole outs-- would be allocated. Whether the Indian State by its nature is disabled-unfriendly or the perceived absence of disabled people from the political scene as a vote bank is stalling any policy focus on them is a matter of a separate debate.

The fight for a disabled-friendly Railway Budget is not something that had mushroomed overnight. On the contrary, it spans at least over the past two years. Apart from recommendations being made to the Indian Government in these years, Public Interest Litigations were filed to seek legal intervention. Apart from the advocacy initiatives by D.R.G., disabled employees of the Railways themselves have been crying hoarse to get equal treatment and better work conditions.  On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the passage of the Disability Act, the Northern Railways Physically Handicapped Employees Association had held a candlelight vigil outside Baroda House, the head office of the Northern Railways.

Returning to the issue of the Railway Budget, a memorandum with recommendations was also sent last year by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) to the Railway Minister for inclusion of disability as a priority area in the Railway Budget 2005-06. 

 The impromptu dharana outside the residence of the Railway Minister got support from Lok Sabha Speaker himself.

But what followed caused greater concern, as it clearly revealed how lightly the Railways administration was taking its duty under the Disability Act. Responding to the memorandum, Indian Railways Joint Director-Establishment, B. Majumdar, claimed that as an organisation, the Railways was doing “enough” already as its “social obligation”, and it was not possible to make any separate budgetary allocation as suggested.

In a letter dated 6 April, 2005, Majumdar wrote: “From time to time, facilities like provision of wheelchair, tri-cycle, and modifications of coaches for facilitating disabled persons have already been provided.”

The Delhi High Court, however, question this claim and have passed an order making the Station Master accountable if wheelchairs were not found available to disabled passengers. 

On the issue of allocating separate resources to make railway stations, coaches, waiting rooms, reservation centres, offices and other services disabled friendly, the Ministry said it gives a passenger subsidy of over Rs. 5,700 crore per annum and it is unable to make any separate budgetary allocation for persons with disability.

In a sweet revenge for the disability sector, on 20 February 2006, when the Delhi High Court pulled up the Railways for non-implementation of the Disability Act, the same official received the Court’s harsh comments stating that the Railways was not doing enough. 

The signage says the place being used by the hacker was meant for an assistance booth.

After the announcement of the Railway Budget for 2006-2007, D.R.G. came out with scathing criticism and expressed dismay at the apparent betrayal by the Railways. It said following in a press release:

“The Railway Budget had something for everyone except people with disabilities. While modernisation and technical improvement has been identified as a priority area, and in line with this it has been announced that four popular trains will be provided with world class amenities and 200 stations would be made model railway stations, can any station or train be world class unless it includes the concerns of disabled passengers?

The Minister announced sops for better housing in the Railway colonies for its employees; there was nothing in it for its disabled employees. The Minister also announced a special recruitment drive to clear the backlog of 6000 vacancies for candidates belonging to Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes but made disability conspicuous by its absence. He began his speech on a very optimistic note that Railway income is slated to reach historic heights and hence also announced the slashing of fares for 1st and 2nd A.C. travel. If resources are not an issue with the Railway Ministry, then why is the voice of disabled people unheard, their needs unmet, and their concerns ignored?”

In the days to come, the sector has its task clearly slated out, in so far as the agenda of a disabled-friendly Indian Railways is concerned. A channel of communication has been opened with the Railway Minister and it is only a matter of pitching in hard to evoke the political will on the part of the Government to take some landmark decisions on this front.

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