Volume 1 Issue 5 - November 01, 2003

There is a big gap between knowing the law and using it, says rights advocate

Colin Gonsalves is an advocate, practicing law in the Supreme Court of India. He has been actively involved with rights cases to systemise public interest law in India.

Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), set up by Gonsalves, is the first nationwide network of lawyers and social activists offering quick response to pro bono support to people with little access to legal recourse.

For the last 15 years, HRLN has been involved in Public Interest Litigations (PILs), monitoring human rights violations and campaigning for justice for the marginalised population of the country. A separate disability unit within HRLN works for increasing awareness on disability laws and providing legal assistance to disabled people.

HRLN, in collaboration with National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), and its partner NGOs, plans to work towards bringing greater awareness, fighting legal battles for the empowerment of disabled people across the country.

He explained the role of HRLN in empowering disabled people, in conversation with Sudeshna Banerjee.

Picture of Colin Gonsalves of Human Rights Law Network Q: You have been a rights lawyer. How do you perceive disability cases when compared to other human rights cases?

Let's say they are same and they are also different. Same in the sense that you can use the legal system and the Constitution to correct injustices we find in the society. So it's the same in case of all injustices. Be it disability, employment, discrimination against women, the problems are similar.

The Constitution is a very powerful tool you can use against discrimination. It's another thing that people are still to wake up to the idea of disability as a mass problem in Indian society and that the use of the law is possible.

This is one area where there is a strange kind of ignorance and lack of understanding. It's important for us to be aware how the legal system can be used for such a massive section. I find it very shocking that it can be so severe, especially the lack of understanding in the use of law!

Q: You see this problem only among disabled people and NGOs. What about the problem on the part of the legal system?

When I say lack of understanding, I don't mean it on the part of disabled people only. Yes, disabled people hardly ever think of using the law. This is similar for most sections of people who are discriminated against. They hardly ever think of using the law. Tribals, for example, hardly ever think of using the law. People feel it's a lengthy system and they are not going to get anything out of it and it's going to be very expensive.

Lawyers, judges, social workers - nobody thinks we can use the legal system. It's partly because of our own fault, it's partly also because the legal system is cumbersome. It's a system hostile to the poor and the marginalised.

It's also our fault that we have not thought of using the law often. My personal experience has been when Javed [Javed Abidi, Executive Director of NCPEDP] provoked me to use the law for public awareness and empowerment. Now I have been provoking other people.

Q: What about women with disabilities, they are even more marginalised when compared with disabled men. What initiatives should be taken to bring them out of their shell?

I think all the initiatives you take for the disability sector, you should first start with women and see the results. The disability issues could be common among both the genders, except there will be issues on sexual harassment and violence against disabled women. They suffer more from hunger and poverty than their male counterparts. In every aspect of disability, there should be a clear balance for the women as well.

Say for employment, there is 3 per cent reservation for disabled people - maybe we should talk about women first.

I don't think things are different. You just have to be more sensitive to understand and take priority with the marginalised sector. I don't think that notion exists today.

Another thing I find in many of our meetings is that mostly disabled men attend these meetings. I think there is a disproportionate despair also on the disability issue. You don't find the balance between the two genders here. So I see a strong bias and discrimination here too.

Q: What are your initiatives in the formation of Disability Law Units (DLUs) with NCPEDP?

I basically collaborated with NCPEDP for whatever legal inputs I could give. Within HRLN we have tried to create a disability rights initiative too. Whatever legal inputs we can give, we would like to extend that to DLUs. For example, we have these social worker partners and we know how the legal system functions.

We know how to monitor and supervise lawyers; how do you evaluate a lawyer; how do you make a success; how to find out if a lawyer is bluffing. We are trained in this tradition.

Q: Do you want to act as a watchdog too?

No, no, not just that. We plan to do cases; training; plan to be watchdogs, and also plan to come out with publications.

How can a law be used; what are the tricks of the trade; how does one draft a petition; how does one win orders from the court; which court do you go to; if there are two or three multiple choices then which one should one take; how soon will one get orders; how soon is it going to be for litigations; who are your lawyer friends in the country; who will help you at different stages - we will provide awareness on not just the actual law but also the use of the law.

It's okay to say that this section says this, and that section says that; what is important is how do I get the order or how do I get the result? There is a big gap between knowing the law and using the law.

Q: Disabled people are doubly disadvantaged while fighting cumbersome legal battles due to the access barriers they face. Are you also looking at creating legally empowered local governing bodies to facilitate legal procedures at district or state levels?

I haven't thought of it, but it is interesting. I see disability as a sector where the law is so little used that I think the next few years will be the years for opening up the law.

Sometimes, things are so backward that you can make rapid strides until it catches up to a certain point and then your progress is much slower. I think the next two or three years would be that initial stage where we could just use the legal system.

Since the legal system has never been used the way it should have been, we are at rock-bottom. We will go up very fast and then slowly our progress will taper off. So, I would prefer to use the legal system as much as possible for the next two or three years and then turn towards how to use local governing bodies.

Right now I cannot think on those lines, simply because we don't have any standard. We have to set certain standards first to get the local governing bodies energised. It hasn't happened yet.

Logo of Disability News and Information Service (DNIS)

N.C.P.E.D.P. Logo (External Website) DNIS is produced and managed by:
National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People

Screening Guidelines to be followed by CISF Security Staff for Passengers with Disabilities at Indian Airports

Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill

Mental Health Care Bill

CRPD Monitoring Report

National Policy

20 Stories of Change(book)

Press Release



  • There is a big gap between knowing the law and using it, says rights advocate


Additional Links

Disability News and Information Service is produced and managed by:

N.C.P.E.D.P. Logo
National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (External Website)

C-43, South Extension, Part - II,
New Delhi 110 049, India
Tel: 91-11-26265647, 26265648
Fax: 91-11-26265649
Website: (External Website)