As the festivities for ushering in the New Year die down, Parvinder Singh takes a look at some of the events of the year 2005, to list out moments of achievement, failure and ambiguity for India’s disability sector.
The year 2005 was no ordinary year. It marked the tenth anniversary of a landmark legislation that enshrined rights of disabled citizens of this country. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 gave disabled people a political identity. It was a tool on which millions pinned their hopes of equality of participation and opportunity. But the tenth anniversary came as sobering reminder of promises denied and opportunities lost. The disability sector united is expressing their unrest with the stark failure in implementing the Act. The World Disability Day on 3 December was turned into an occasion for issuing the call of action with the slogan of “The tenth year of the Disability Act – It’s time for ACT10N”.
If this added gloom to the sector’s decadal introspection, the Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) reacted with renewed vigour and opted for a principled battle by raising the demand for a separate ministry. The demand took the media and a sleepy polity by surprise. Questioning the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (M.S.J.E.) for failing to deliver even at the most basic level of making the institutions set up by the Disability Act functional, D.R.G. said if not a separate Ministry then the subject of disability must be transferred to the Human Resource Development Ministry, arguing that the issue of disability must be viewed as a human resource issue and not as a welfare issue.
The post of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disability remained vacant for most of the year and even when the appointment did take place, the basic and united demand by the sector of appointing a person with disability was ignored. The office of the Chairperson of the Rehabilitation of Council of India though allotted to a senior and respected figure in the sector, General Ian Cardozo, remained ineffective due a long leave by the appointee. The sector was keen on knowing about the steps that the Ministry had taken to end the impasse, but General Cardozo joined his office much to relief of the sector.
In a major victory for India’s disability sector, Poonam Natarajan, a 20-year veteran in the sector and head of Chennai-based Vidya Sagar, was appointed as the Chairperson of National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities. A yearlong confusion preceded the appointment leading to an extended stay of predecessor Aloka Guha.
As the year 2005 drew in to its final days, the Union Cabinet approved a National Policy for Disabled People at a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India finally has a policy for disabled people, but the outcome is yet to be assessed by stakeholders and public at large. The disability sector led-by D.R.G. had be on its toes to force the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to make the process more representative by holding consultations, and though the Ministry relented, it was turned into a face saving exercise to brave intense media criticism.
The most outstanding development in the past year was the finalisation of National Action Plan for Inclusive Education of Children and Youth with Disability. This would be made operational by this academic year. Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh announced this on the eve of World Disability Day.
The Group of Ministers (G.o.M.), in a landmark decision, made the Human Resource Development (H.R.D.) Ministry the nodal agency for the education of disabled people, thus freeing them from the shackles of M.S.J.E. and its policy of segregation through its special schools.
The past year also witnessed the launching of National Campaign for a Barrier-Free India. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit while launching the Campaign by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) on 15 August 2005, called for launching a second movement of independence on the lines of the Freedom Movement that led to India’s political freedom.
With awareness being an integral part of this campaign, N.C.P.E.D.P. organised on Christmas Eve a Bollywood concert by Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukerji. The proceeds from the charity concert are meant for giving a momentous push to the Campaign.
Access seemed to be getting a better focus at least in the National Capital with Delhi Transport Corporation placing disabled-friendly high-capacity buses on select Delhi roads. But that’s just the silver lining. The Master Plan, and the Building Byelaws are expected to be disabled-friendly and follow the idea of universal access. Representatives from the disability sector were called for consultation on incorporating the disability perspective.
In terms of taking cognizance of disability as a crosscutting issue, the policy makers once again failed. The recent Disaster Management Act and Rural Employment Guarantee Act are glaring examples of these omissions.
In terms of judicial activism, this year has seen disability associations and individuals appeal to the courts leading to some path breaking judgments. The Bombay High Court ruled that employees who develop mental health problems couldn’t be sacked from service as it amounts to discrimination. The judges went into interpretation of Section 47 (dealing with non-discrimination) of the Disability Act 1995 and asserted that the authorities should either shift the employee concerned to another post with the same pay scale and service benefits or create a supernumerary post until a suitable post is available.
In another major success for disability sector in Goa, the Panjim Bench of Bombay High Court ordered the State Government to frame a State Policy for Persons with Disability within the next six months to address the problems faced by people with disabilities.
After a protracted battle by People with Dwarfism in Andhra Pradesh, the State Government yielded to their demand by notifying them in the category of orthopaedically disabled thus allowing them to seek benefits under The Disability Act 1995. This was as a result of the P.I.L. filed by Twin Cities Dwarfs Association in the Andhra Pradesh High Court.
Though it’s not possible to do an exhaustive summary of all that happened past year, the developments mentioned here broadly define the contours of struggles and pangs of India’s disability sector in the year 2005.