Today, if the legal rights of disabled people are being protected in Assam, it is largely because of the efforts of the Disability Law Unit North East (D.L.U. – N. E.) at Shishu Sarothi. Teresa Rehman’s article in Infochange gives us an insight into the hardships that disabled people in this part of the country face.
In the northeastern state of Assam, the rights of disabled people get even lower priority than anywhere else in the country. Disability Law Unit North East (D.L.U. – N.E.) of Shishu Sarothi has come up with successful legal interventions to secure the rights of disabled people in the region.
In Assam’s Morigaon district, school teacher Prafulla Pator goes for his evening walks along the lanes of his village leaning on his crutch, attends panchayat meetings, and exudes a new-found confidence while working in his school. His speech problem, however, continues and he still cannot teach in the classroom. A well-known singer once, he continues to take active part in social and cultural functions in his locality.
Things were not so smooth ten years ago. In 1999, Pator suffered a stroke, which paralysed the left side of his body. This left him with a locomotor disability. The school authorities refused to let him work and he was denied any salary for six years. This was the same school he had founded in 1982. He was so badly off financially that he had to mortgage some land so that he and his joint family could survive.
Pator’s village is located some 100 km from Assam’s capital city, Guwahati. He was the first person from his village to graduate from a college in Guwahati. He returned to his village and founded the Bishnu Rabha High School in 1982.
So, quite naturally, his illness and the attitude of the school authorities left him shattered. He could not afford any advanced treatment and struggled for six years to meet the basic needs of his family.
His story appeared in a local daily in May 2005 and it caught the attention of D.L.U. - N.E., which intervened in his case.
The D.L.U. was set up in 2003 by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) in association with The British High Commission. Since 2006, it has been supported by Light for the World, Austria. The unit advocates policy change, litigation and awareness among stakeholders.
D.L.U. helped Pator to file a case in the Guwahati High Court to fight for his rights under the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which states that no government employee acquiring a disability during service shall be removed from service or reduced in rank. As a person with 50% disability, Pator falls well within the ambit of this Act.
In a landmark judgment in May 2006, the Guwahati High Court directed that Pator be reinstated and given full back wages with 6% interest. “This judgment was our first success story. We followed up his case with the education commissioner and made sure he got his compensation,” says Anju Talukdar, lawyer and coordinator of the unit. Pator’s case was a path breaker and had a ripple effect. It inspired others to approach D.L.U. – N.E. to fight for their rights. An engineering graduate from Jorhat Engineering College, Irshad Alam filed a case with the help of D.L.U. – N.E. after he was denied admission on the basis of being ‘medically unfit’.
Nripendra Nath Mahanta was an employee of the Life Insurance Corporation of India when he lost his vision due to a brain tumour. He was due for a promotion but was not allowed to join work. He approached D.L.U. – N.E. which approached the Guwahati High Court, which issued a notice to L.I.C. in July 2007. Within one month, Mahanta was allowed back at work and was also promoted to branch manager.
The rights of people with disabilities are generally ignored in a region like the northeast, which is plagued by conflict and violence. But D.L.U. – N.E. has done commendable work in ensuring that the basic rights of disabled people are not violated due to ignorance and lack of legal support.
D.L.U. – N.E. disseminates information and organises sensitisation workshops for lawyers and N.G.O.s. D.L.U.’s Talukdar says that of all kinds of human rights, rights of disabled people are the most neglected in the northeast region. Physical barriers in the environment together with social discrimination limit and often extinguish opportunities for disabled people to work and lead a normal life. There is little documentation of the extent of disability in the region. There are even differences on how disability is defined and therefore on the numbers of disabled people.
Meghalaya has been very active in creating awareness, especially in rural areas, through D.L.U. – N.E.’s partner organisation Bethany Society. One of the major interventions by Bethany Society is the formation of Disabled Persons’ Organisation (D.P.O.) in every district and at block level. These D.P.O.s have come together and formed the Association of Challenged People, Meghalaya.
Carmo Noronha, Director of Bethany Society says, “We have been able to put a lot of pressure on the government in order to ensure that at least some of the rights of disabled persons are looked at. For instance, reservation in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, in higher education, and 3% reservation in all poverty alleviation schemes including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act schemes.” Bethany Society has also drafted a policy on disability issues for Meghalaya state.
In a region like the northeast, where the rights of disabled people are eclipsed by violence and insurgency, creating awareness on the rights of people with disabilities is a long-drawn-out process. Talukdar adds, “We can start with education and access which can change things on the ground. There are reservations and employment in government services but not enough qualified applicants.”
The hilly terrain in most parts of the region makes life even more difficult for people with disabilities. For instance, Chaing Puii, secretary of the Spastic Society of Mizoram, says that most disabled people are denied their basic right to vote as polling booths are not accessible.
“Acquiring motorised wheelchairs for everyone is not a feasible idea for economic reasons. Parents are often reluctant to bring out their children and many are confined to their homes,” adds Puii. The Spastic Society, which also is a partner organisation of D.L.U. – N.E., is working on community-based rehabilitation programmes in 30 villages of Mizoram.
Hopefully, organisations like D.L.U. – N.E. will be able to generate awareness of legislations on disability and overcome impediments like social exclusion, poverty, and accessibility which make India’s 70 million disabled people an ‘invisible minority’.