Volume 4 Issue 9 - May 01, 2006

‘Affirmative Action for All’ – None for Disabled!

A look at the recent headlines in some of Indias leading national dailies speaks volumes about the scant attention that is being paid to disability. A closer look at these stories also seems to suggest that all the work that disability sector has done in the last ten years to bring disability on par with other marginalised groups in India has been completely ignored, says Meenu Bhambani.

In the past few weeks, the country has witnessed a serious debate on the pros and cons of extending reservation to socially and economically backward classes in the private/ corporate sector and educational institutions. While there are some quarters in the establishment that are in favour of bringing a law and mandating the private/corporate sector to hire people on the fringes of socio-economic mainstream, there are others who favour a carrot policy to lure the corporate sector. Indias corporate sector is vehemently opposing the move to introduce quotas in the private sector. The corporate sector is open to the idea of affirmative action to promote diversity and equity in jobs without resorting to quota.

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh gave a call last week to the private sector to volunteer to provide jobs and training to weaker sections. Such a call indicates that the Government is not willing to bring in a legal mandate to realise the goal of United Peoples Alliances (U.P.A.) National Common Minimum Programme of providing job quotas in the private sector. However, Minister for Commerce and Industry, Kamalnath, has proposed that fiscal incentives may be given to firms employing more SC/STs.

Disability sector has been quietly taking note of this debate, feeling perturbed at the fact that disability or disabled people have figured nowhere in this debate. Section 41 of the Disability Act mandates that the Government should give incentives to the private sector to encourage employment of disabled people. This demand of the disability sector has been pending for very long now. There were several petitions sent and several rounds of meetings, conferences and seminars held to impress upon the Finance Ministers of various Governments, but the Government led by National Democratic Alliance (N.D.A.) and U.P.A. have so far failed to spell out these incentives. Later the ball was thrown in the court of the disability sector to spell out as to what incentives they would want the Government to announce for the corporate sector to encourage them to employ disabled people.

In 2003, members of the Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) under the leadership of its Convenor Javed Abidi, had met the then Finance Minister Jaswant Singh who had assured that the incentives will be considered in the Union Budget 2004. However, the disability sector was hugely disappointed when the Interim Budget had nothing for disability.

In May 2004, N.D.A. Government had been replaced by U.P.A. Government and the disability sector was thrilled to have P. Chidambaram as Finance Minister. In June 2004, a delegation comprising P.M. Sinha, Prof. Bibek Debroy and Javed Abidi called on the Finance Minister. He once again assured the disability sector that he would give a serious consideration to the issue of incentives.

In order to recommend suitable incentives that could be given to the corporates, which will promote greater employment opportunities for disabled people, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) proactively undertook a project to draft an Incentive Policy. As a first step, two research studies were conducted: 1) Incentives Policies in select European countries to promote employment of disabled people; and 2) Existing Incentives policies in India available for the corporate sector to promote other social and economic causes. This Incentive Policy was drafted by a high-powered think tank chaired by P. M. Sinha, the then Director of I.C.I.C.I., Wipro, I.O.C. and co-chaired by Prof. Bibek Debroy, Director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies. Other eminent members of the think tank included Subodh Bhargava, Ashok Alexander, Harsh Mandar and senior representatives from C.I.I., F.I.C.C.I. and ASSOCHAM. Some of the key incentives suggested were in the area of corporate income tax, service tax, indirect tax and incentives at the state level.

All these efforts have not been adequately paid attention to either by the Government or the corporate sector. In the Union Budget of 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 the disability sector was in for a huge disappointment as not a word on disability was mentioned leave aside spelling out an incentive policy under Section 41 of the Disability Act. The question here is: does the blame lie entirely with the Government or does one hold corporate and disability sector responsible for not having the foresight to not let the issue take a backseat till some concrete, time bound action is taken on the matter?

In 1999, N.C.P.E.D.P. conducted a Survey of top 100 companies in India to study the employment practices vis--vis disabled people. It revealed that most companies do not employ any disabled person. The average employment rate of disabled people in the private sector was only 0.28 per cent.

The immediate impetus for this study was the harsh fact that about 70 million people of the country are affected by disability and the ugly truth that only a miniscule number of about one lakh people have succeeded in getting regular employment since independence! The main objective of the research study was to reflect on the employment practices of the corporate sector (both public and private) vis-a-vis disabilities. The results point towards a rather dismal trend in terms of the current employment practices in the corporate sector with regard to people with disabilities.

This dismal trend continues even after 10 years of the passage of the Disability Act, 1995. In 2004-2005, NCPEDP entrusted the Social and Rural Research Institute of IMRB International to study the employment scenario in Corporates. A survey was conducted among 120 Corporates including Public Sector Units, Private Limited Companies and Multi-National Companies. The total employee strength of all surveyed companies was around 207450. Of these only 1861 were reported to be disabled employees. One major finding of the survey that is damning is only 12.5 per cent of the companies surveyed had a written H.R. policy, leave alone employing people with disabilities.

Quoting the new President of C.I.I., R. Seshasayee, it has been reported that C.I.I. has constituted a Task Force for Affirmative Action to take positive action to empower the backward classes. This Task Force is being set up under the chairmanship of J.J. Irani which would submit an action plan, in eight weeks, with focus on education, skills development, employability, entrepreneurship and social development.

It may be recalled that C.I.I. had set up a Core Group on Disability, currently being headed by Sujit Gupta. The question here is as to why disability is not being represented in the Task Force for Affirmative Action and why is it being dealt as a separate issue? The CII Core Group on Disability should have impacted upon the new President of CII to acknowledge disability as a minority on par with other socially and economically backward classes. Just as the Government of India has left disability to the mercy of a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment similarly even CII is not adopting a holistic approach towards disability and excluding it to be taken care of by the Core Group.

In the forthcoming Conference, Disability: Mainstreaming the Marginalised, being organised by C.I.I. on 2 May 2006, the agenda for disability sector has been clearly laid out. It is time to lobby strongly for incentives and force the corporate sector to adopt and strictly follow the Corporate Code on Disability. Further, it is of urgent importance that disability as a marginalised identity group be given equal status not just by the Government but also by C.I.I.

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