Volume 3 Issue 4 - February 15, 2005
The law has lots of teeth...It is we who should learn to bite hard and bite more often!Javed Abidi was a part of the Disabled Rights Group that lobbied for the passage of The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. Here he talks to Salil Chaturvedi about the Act, and how it has impacted the lives of disabled people in India.
Going back nine years, can you recollect the circumstances of the passing
of the Act ?
The day is etched in my mind! The Bill was passed by both the Houses of Parliament in a single day by the Lok Sabha at about 11-11:30 a.m. and then by the Rajya Sabha around 4:00 p.m. We were there in the Visitor's Gallery. It was all very dramatic and very emotional.
Some NGOs were against the passage of it? What were their reasons?
I still do wonder if they actually had a reason! These NGOs were the 'big daddies' of the Indian disability sector in that era all ruled by non-disabled people who had built their respective ivory towers. The mafia stands exposed now, but they were all very powerful people then. I think they could not digest the fact that a bunch of disabled people (we were only 8 people, when DRG was started) had decided to take their destiny into their own hands. Otherwise, there was hardly a good reason! I personally went to each one of them (to find out as to why they were opposing the Disability Bill) and they could not spell out anything very substantive. All they could mutter was to shift a few full stops and to add a few commas!!
How would you say the Act has changed the disability landscape in India in the nine years of its existence? Has the Act affected the psyche of disabled people in India?
We have achieved in the previous nine years, what India could not in the preceding 48 years. It was only in the early 1990s that a disability rights movement started taking shape. The movement could gain ground and was catalysed only after the passage of the Disability Act in 1995. The law gave disabled people hope. It gave them confidence. Even a sense of pride. Another huge contribution of the law is that because of it and all the discussions surrounding it, massive awareness has been created in the society at large.
But it is often said that the Act does not have teeth...
The law has lots of teeth. And when it bites, it bites hard! Ask Soli Sorabji, who inspite of being India's Solicitor General at that time, lost the Indian Airlines case. It was proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the Nation or its decision makers cannot hide behind the "subject to economic capacity" phrase, when it came to providing necessary facilities for disabled people.
Ask J. K. Banthia, who as India's then Census Commissioner, decided that it was not necessary to collect disability specific data. Later, he had to eat humble pie and was forced to add two questions regarding disability in the Census 2001 questionnaire.
Ask T. S. Krishna Murthy, who as India's Chief Election Commissioner, refused to listen to the voice of India's disabled vis-a-vis their right to an accessible and disabled-friendly voting process. Finally, the ramps had to be built and Braille sheets printed when the Chief Justice of India ordered so.
Ask the babus of the Archeological Survey of India who had to put up temporary wooden ramps for Stephen Hawking on a Saturday night; or the babus of the Home Ministry who had to grudgingly open up the prestigious Indian Administrative Service for disabled people on the orders of the Prime Minister.
I really do want all of us, especially the disabled people of India, to genuinely believe that the law has teeth. It is we who are either not fully aware of the provisions or do not have the necessary courage to take on the system. It is we who should learn to bite and bite hard and bite more often!
One of the objectives of the Act is to create a society in which disabled people would enjoy equal status on par with non-disabled persons. Do you think an Act can change attitudes and perceptions and bring about a change in society?
An 'Act' is merely a piece of paper. It can't jump out of an almirah and begin implementing itself. It is for the policy makers and the decision makers to take necessary steps. And it is for the disabled people to play the role of a watchdog. We have largely been an 'invisible minority' in India. The 'Act' has all the wherewithal (education, jobs, access, etc.) which will make the 60 million disabled Indians 'visible'. Once disabled people step out into the open, once they become visible, attitudes and perceptions will change automatically.
The Act lays many responsibilities for the government and local authorities such as conducting surveys and researching causes of disabilities. Has this been done?
Forget research, even the very basics have not yet been addressed. Take education, for example. Even after nine years, there is not a single University in India that can be classified as truly accessible and barrier-free for disabled students. On the employment front, the picture is as dismal as ever. According to the Labour Ministry, against a live register of lakhs of disabled people, only about 3,000 or so got jobs during 2001-2002. Figures for 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 are not even available. Access, which according to me is the key, remains totally neglected.
The Chief Commissioner is required to submit a report to the Central Government on the implementation of the Act at regular intervals. What kind of reporting has happened so far? Is the current structure of the Chief Commissioners and the State Commissioners something that needs to be looked at with a fresh perspective?
It is February 2005 and the Annual Report for 2003-2004 has not yet been made ready by the office of the Chief Commissioner. And if you look at all the previous reports, they read more like an information brochure. The 'watchdog' role of the Chief Commissioner has been totally compromised.
The structure is fine but the office has to be given independence and dignity. India's Chief Commissioner for Person with Disabilities cannot be appointed by the babus of the Social Justice Ministry. We have already urged the Prime Minister to look deeper into this issue.
What about the Central Coordination Committee? It seems to have been
given a crucial role in the Act? How would you rate its performance?
Not even 2 on the scale of 10! Mostly, it doesn't meet and when it does, nobody very significant attends the meetings. All the various ministries send their junior most officials with a 'bala talo' attitude.
The Central Coordination Committee is supposed to be the Nation's policy making body on disability issues, but tell me of one policy which may have emerged from this august body over a period of the last nine years!
After ten years of the Act, would you say that all disabled persons are aware of their rights. What about the awareness levels of the judiciary, which has recently been playing an important role in building a Civil Society?
I don't think so. India is such a large country. Disabled people are scattered. It is mostly rural and significantly illiterate. But then, this is supposedly the Information Age. Every village (almost!) has atleast a radio, if not a television. Therefore, if the State genuinely desires, the necessary awareness can be created. Infact, even the 'Act' mandates this. Disabled people must be told about this law and their rights as guaranteed under it.
Judiciary is by and large quite aware and even sensitive to the issue of disability. But, more needs to be done. The judicial process is not all that disabled-friendly. Most of the court buildings are inaccessible. And the lawyers are not all that aware, or sensitive.
What in your opinion should be done to get the Disability Act implemented at a faster pace?
Treat disability with the seriousness that it deserves. The 60 million disabled citizens of India should not have to 'exist' or 'survive' on doles or charity. They should be treated at par with all the other citizens of the nation. They should be given their rightful due. And it is very much possible if the right environment, the right infrastructure is created.
We have submitted a 'Blue Print' to the Prime Minister. The same has also been shared with UPA Chairperson, Smt. Sonia Gandhi, who as we all know takes a personal interest in all matters concerning the issue of disability. Three meetings have been held so far with the present Social Justice Minister. So, let's see! The least we expect is for the Disability Chief Commissioner to be given independence, dignity and necessary powers for her/him to crack the whip and set things right. The best case scenario ofcourse would be the setting up of a separate ministry on disability issues.
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