Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) has finally voiced its demand for a separate Ministry for disability issues or it should be shifted to Ministry of Human Resource Development (M.H.R.D.). And why not? Even after almost a decade of the enactment of The Disability Act, 1995, nothing substantial has been done for the betterment of the disabled people, thanks to the low priority given to disability by the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment (M.S.J.E.), which mainly focuses on Scheduled Castes & Minorities and follows a welfare approach. Disability sector feels that the current administrative infrastructure is inadequate and lacks the power. Disability has to be pegged at a higher level – at the Ministerial level. Only then will it be possible for it to play an effective role of a nodal agency to coordinate with other Ministries / Departments at the highest level, examines Chitra S. Shankar.
And thus remains The Disability Act of 1995 with almost Zero implementation. Even the three Apex Institutions for disabled people – Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, Rehabilitation Council of India and National Trust are headless for all practical purposes. In fact, the National Disability Commission, which was announced on 15 August 2003, as a result of sustained campaign of Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) was also abolished.
Having run out of patience, D.R.G. decided to launch a campaign to demand a separate Ministry for disability issues, and called a Press Conference on 21 June 2005 to announce the same. D.R.G. Convenor Javed Abidi forcefully brought out the failure of the M.S.J.E. in addressing key issues of access, education and employment.
Abidi slammed the M.S.J.E. which is supposedly the Nodal Ministry for disability but has done precious little. “A few months ago, when Meira Kumar, Minister of Social Justice & Empowerment demanded reservations/concessions for the Scheduled Castes in the private sector, she forgot all about the disabled! Disability Act has mandated incentives for private sector for encouraging employment of disabled people; there has been no action in this regard. This once again proves that disability figures nowhere on the agenda of the Minister or the Ministry,” he said. “The Minister heading it is invariably a prisoner of vote bank politics!” he asserted. “As a result, the first priority for the Ministry are issues concerning Scheduled Castes, at number two are issues concerning Minorities and only after this, and the lowest are issues of disability (if at all any). In fact, during Maneka Gandhi's tenure, we saw that issues concerning animals preceded the subject of disability, which had no priority at all!” he added.Other speakers at the press conference were D. S. Chauhan, Hon. Secretary, Delhi Association of the Deaf, Ashwini Kumar Agarwal, Joint Secretary, National Association of the Blind, Ranoo Banerjee, Executive Council Member, PARIVAR, Asha Mehra, Secretary, Swavalamban, Arun Rao, Executive Director, Deaf Way, and Kamaljeet Singh, Senior Accountant, Jagrit Viklang Manch. They underlined the fact that the failure to address disability issues has been a consistent feature of all the governments cutting across the political spectrum. Thus, they said, to even begin some serious work on implementation of almost a decade-old Disability Act and to address, as Abidi termed it, the “systemic failure”, a separate Ministry is needed.
Looking back at the progress made (or the lack of it) in various areas, one finds that there has hardly been any effort on the part of any government over the past ten years. To begin with access, all authorities are in a denial mode despite consistent demands by the disability sector and disabled people to make building, infrastructure and facilities barrier free.
What is more surprising, once again reinforcing the insensitivity on the part of the authorities, is that even the new plans and structures flaunt accessibility norms stipulated by law. What better proof than the proposed Master Plan of Delhi which fail to even mention adequately the issue of access?The Railways continues to remain inaccessible and unsafe for persons with disability. National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) had sent a representation to the Railway Ministry, giving recommendations to include disability concerns in the Railway Budget 2004-05. The reply was lukewarm, dismissing all recommendations.Metro Rail is coming up in Chennai and Bangalore and there is no mention of disability. A disability organisation has filed a Public Interest Litigation against the Chennai Metro in this regard. On the education front, universities and colleges across the country have failed abysmally in making education inclusive even as shocking incidents of students with disabilities being denied a place in regular education system keep making headlines.
In 2003, a pioneering national survey of universities and colleges was done by N.C.P.E.D.P. It was an eye opener and highlighted the pathetic state of access for students with disability. The enrollment rate of disabled students in universities was found to be 0.1 per cent and in schools it was 0.5 per cent.
N.C.P.E.D.P. launched a campaign on 15 August 2004 in order to ensure that the H.R.D. Ministry took up education of disabled as well. The H.R.D. Minister Arjun Singh called two meetings in his chamber for discussing the matter.He invited Minister of Social Justice Minister Meira Kumar for both meetings. She did not attend both meetings! Arjun Singh, then announced the Comprehensive Action Plan for the Education of Disabled People, which was tabled in the Rajya Sabha on 21 March 2005. This again reiterates the fact that the M.S.J.E. has not only failed to take up proactive initiatives, but is also not cooperating when other Ministries are taking the lead.
On the employment front, The Disability Act, 1995, mandates three per cent reservation in government jobs for persons with disabilities. But even this limited avenue is fraught with injustice and prejudice as was brought forth by dismissal of four disabled employees by Gas Authority of India Limited (G.A.I.L.) without any reason. It took a fast unto death by Disabled Rights Group Convenor Javed Abidi and personal intervention by Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar to get these sacked employees jobs in Indraprastha Gas Limited. And M.S.J.E. was nowhere in the picture!
To sum up, the M.S.J.E’s blatant neglect and apathy towards the issues of persons with disabilities has left the sector furious, leading to the demand for a separate Ministry. A few positive changes that have come about are only due to the consistent fight put up by the disability sector in the face of adversities starting from the appointment of the first Chief Commissioner for Person with Disability in 1998 (3 years after the passage of the Act), to the issue of getting disability included as a category for collecting data in Census 2001, to the opening of Civil Services for disabled people, to having disabled friendly general elections.
The present infrastructure to deal with disability issues in the Ministry is not only inadequate but also lacks power. A Joint Secretary level person heads the disability division, under M.S.J.E. D.R.G. members feel that unless disability is pegged at a higher level – at the Ministerial level, disability issues will continue to remain the last priority. The time is now ripe to reinforce the fact that disability, which has historically been viewed as a charity/welfare issue, is not the right approach and that the 70 million neglected population of India are a major human resource and need to be given the chance to be a part of the mainstream to contribute to the development of the nation.
In order to correct the “systemic failure”, DRG has demanded a separate Ministry for disability issues or to shift the subject to the Ministry of H.R.D, as disability is a human rights and development issue and cannot remain a welfare issue. Adding weight to this rightful demand is the support expressed for the same by National Human Rights Commission (N.H.R.C.), at the recently held National Conference on Disability in Delhi.