That is the question that everyone is asking. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 4. The disability sector was up in arms against the Bill as it left out 20 million disabled children. The H.R.D. Ministry cried foul and finally Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi intervened to assure the sector. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. looks back at the protests and why the sector took months to react.
It was Mahatma Gandhi’s dream but it was only in 2002 that education was made a fundamental right by the 86th amendment to the Constitution. In 2004, the N.D.A. government drafted the Bill but was voted out of power. The U.P.A. government took the mantle but the Bill kept getting stalled for lack of funds. Then came Kapil Sibal, revelling in his new found ministerial role. He was in a hurry, for reasons best known to him, to get the Bill passed. And in this hurry, he left out 20 million children with disabilities. And it opened nothing short of a Pandora’s Box.
The Bill had three major flaws; it did not include disability in the category of disadvantaged children, it did not mention anything about special schools or infrastructure needed to teach students with disabilities. The most glaring shortcoming was that the Bill took the definition of disability from the Disability Act of 1995. This Act only covers physical disabilities. For this very reason The National Trust Act was enacted in 1999 which covers autism, learning disabilities and multiple disabilities. These children were automatically excluded!
The Bill was already passed by the Rajya Sabha and was to be tabled in the Lok Sabha on July 30. A delegation of disabled rights activists went to meet the Minister at his residence but his ignorance and insensitivity shocked them. With no recourse left, the sector, under the banner of Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) protested in large numbers and across cities against the Bill. And then to cut a long story short, Dr. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi intervened to ensure that disability is atleast mentioned in the rules so that children with disabilities are not excluded.
There are few tough questions that the leadership of the sector faces now. Javed Abidi, Convenor, D.R.G. and Dr. Mithu Alur, Founder President, Spastic Society of India, two well known faces were part of the Central Advisory Board of Education (C.A.B.E.) during Arjun Singh’s tenure. They, along with other experts had put forth many provisions for disability in the 2005 draft. But these disappeared from the Bill that was tabled in the Parliament. The Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in December 2008 by Arjun Singh. So what happened during the drafting and the tabling? How did disability get diluted in the Bill? Nobody seems to have a clear answer to that.
Abidi, Convenor says, “The draft that C.A.B.E. submitted included disability till as late as 2008. But when it was tabled in the Rajya Sabha, it was changed. Why, we do not know. But yes, we failed to notice it at that time.” Infact, the sector was unaware of this development till July 28 when Radhika Alkazi, Managing Trustee and Director, A.A.S.T.H.A. convened an emergency meeting, a day before the Bill was to be tabled in the Lok Sabha.
“I had been following the Bill for some time. But what I did not realise till it was passed by the Rajya Sabha was that I was looking at the old draft which did include disability. I think we, as a sector should have realised the urgency of the issue and kept an eye on it more carefully,” explains Alkazi.
G. Syamala, Executive Director, Aadi, also did not realise that the draft had changed. “We were originally scheduled to have a meeting on August 3 to discuss the Bill. Only when it was passed by the Rajya Sabha did we realise that the draft has changed,” she said.
So who was accountable for this oversight? “Of course we are accountable. We should have been more proactive. Having said that, the Ministry also cannot shirk away from its responsibility. Why wasn’t there a wider consultation if the draft was being changed?” Syamala questions.
“Yes, in some ways sector is guilty of complacency. The main reason could be that there is no organized system of sustained vigil for a proactive action,” adds Vandana Bedi, Consultant, Disability and Development.
The Ministry wondered at the timing of the protests as did a section of the population. Was it politically motivated? Accusations surfaced. Yes, the sector had slackened its vigilant eye. But Alkazi says that the Ministry cannot absolve itself.
“Yes, the sector was not vigilant enough but it was the Ministry’s duty to have had a wider consultation on the issue. They cannot just overlook an already marginalised section and then turn around and say why did we wake up so late!” she said.
“To commit a mistake unknowingly is one thing. But to do it knowingly, based on arrogance of power and the strength of numbers is another,” adds Abidi.
Was there also a lack of cohesion among the leaders of the sector? Were there some people who bought the Minister’s appeasement tactics? A difference of opinion did surface at a press conference.
“In regard to the assurances given by the H.R.D. Minister in a meeting with Dr. Mithu Alur, she felt that we should call off the press conference and the protest on the assurance of issuance of a notification later. But the rest of the sector was certainly opposed to it. So, the protest continued,” says Bedi.
But Alkazi disagrees. “It is natural and healthy to have different opinions in any sector. But as far as this issue was concerned we were united,” she said. “When the delegation went to meet Kapil Sibal on July 31 he made a lot of insensitive statements which he later denied. I think this may have caused confusion as far as the Minister’s stance was concerned. But the core members of D.R.G. were united in their opinion and demands,” adds Syamala.
D.N.I.S. contacted Dr. Alur for her comments. But she did not respond till the filing of this story.
However, these differences did not show in the protest. The sector rallied, unitedly and with media support the issue could not be swept under the carpet. With the intervention of Dr. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the future of 20 million children was not compromised. There is a lesson to be learnt here. Yes, the Ministry was callous in its attitude but the sector also cannot deny its complacency. Have we learnt our lesson? The same Ministry has now come up with a draft National Policy on I.C.T. in School Education. It also includes I.C.T. infrastructure for children with disabilities. How many of us know of it? When D.N.I.S. contacted a few people from the sector, they were not even aware.
Alkazi feels that there is also a tendency of the sector to work in isolation. “We need to have more consultations with other organisations working in relevant areas. For instance, we should have consulted the education sector at large on this Bill.”
“Also we need to have core groups looking closely at specific areas and have frequent discussions at State level so that an incident like this is not repeated,” she said.
We, as a sector, have to pull up our socks. We have to keep a hawk eye on all legislations - from the Food Security Bill to the Health Bill to just about anything and everything. We have to ensure that the rights of 70 million people with disabilities are not infringed upon. And we have to do this together, keeping personal and organisational interests aside. Yes, we were caught on the wrong foot this time. But we have to make a promise to ourselves that there will not be a next time.