Volume 3 Issue 6 - March 15, 2005

Ramp or no ramp, Lalu Prasad Yadav and P. Chidambaram have romped home

The concerns of disabled people need a massive boost, and the recent Union and Railway Budgets could have addressed the gaps. However, this did not happen. A review by our correspondent.

An artist's impression of P. Chidambaram entering Parliament House to present the Budget

Access to the ramp at Hyderabad's Nampalli railway station is effectively blocked; it might as well be removed. But the futile structure is symbolic of an underlying hypocrisy that is so much part of our rehabilitation policies. It is a reminder that even a thousand functional ramps will not make any real difference as long as train compartments remain impenetrable fortresses for large sections of the disabled. The total lack of basic facilities is still the rule rather than an exception and evidence of the stranglehold of an old mindset. But ramps such as the one in the Hyderabad station exemplify a knee-jerk reaction which also must be exposed.

Under India's non-performing governments and bureaucracies, the Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunity, Protection of Rights and Full Participation), or the P.W.D., Act of 1995 is, for all practical purposes, another Nampalli ramp -- re-inventing itself every day and in ever new forms. But the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) and the Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) sought to take the bull by the horns as it were. In February, they came up with a set of budget proposals for the Union Railway Minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav. In essence, they told the Minister that it was time the railways looked beyond concessional fares in the annual budget. That there were equally pressing issues craving for attention. Physical access for the orthopaedically disabled on platforms, train compartments and toilets and installation of visual indicators of arrivals and departures for the hearing impaired -- to mention a few. But a numbing 'no' is all that the D.R.G. heard from the deliverer of the poor and backward classes.

The Nampalli ramp is not an isolated instance of non-functioning or non-existent facilities for disabled people. Nor is Yadav really such an isolated man (much as the National Democratic Alliance and Ramvilas Pasvan may wish) in the United Progressive Alliance Government despite the drubbing he received in the Bihar elections.

Artist's view of Railway Minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, talking about the Railway Budget

On 28 February, Yadav must have discovered he could count on his colleague, the Union Finance Minister, to effectively dodge some of the perennially unanswered questions. As far as India's disabled people are concerned, there is not much to choose between the Harvard-educated and sophisticated P. Chidambaram and the unschooled and ‘raw’ Yadav.

How Chidambaram got away with the impression of a pro-poor and development-oriented budget is quite revealing in itself. Persons with disability do not even seem to figure in his notion of the “Aam admi” [common man]. He announced substantial increases in outlays for basic education, health, water supply, sanitation and rural employment. But these are precisely areas where disabled people are worst hit. It is plain common sense that in a real scramble for limited resources, disabled people stand little chance of securing even their basic entitlements. If their voices are seldom heard, it is only because they do not constitute vote banks.

Allocation for the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan has more than doubled since the last budget. The government has likewise nearly doubled its financial commitment for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme and the Reproductive and Child Health Programmes. Nobody can be so daft as to deny that disabled people too have much to gain from these measures. But then, no one knows better than Chidambaram that the concerns of disabled people need a massive boost. After all, he proudly proclaimed on the floor of the Lok Sabha the introduction for the first time of gender budgeting. Another first is a separate statement on schemes for the development of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Only, there was not to be a third first in his budget.

N.C.P.E.D.P. and D.R.G. had placed demands rather identical to those of the Finance Minister. Among them was a proposal to declare disability as a priority area for development in the current Budget. Another suggestion was for a Composite Plan, requiring different Ministries to allocate a certain percentage of their Budget towards the implementation of the Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunity, Protection of Rights and Full Participation), or the P.W.D., Act of 1995. Never mind that the last idea emanated from the Tenth Five-year Plan. But all that Chidambaram would say in response is that existing deductions on specified expenditure on disabled dependants and deduction to a person with disability will continue. But it is no secret that reductions in excise and customs duties on assistive aids and appliances for disabled people are an instance of the government's obligation to bring the tariff regime close to ASEAN levels.

Chidambaram's commitment to ensure growth with equity will ring hollow so long as he fails to recognise that an important aspect of that promise is to integrate a population of 20 to 30 million -- by conservative estimates -- into the development process. He must demonstrate a conviction to invest adequately into this huge pool of human resource.

When gender budgeting is here, disability budgeting cannot be a long way behind. But is such optimism warranted?

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