Due to a path-breaking initiative being taken by Arjun Singh, Minister for Human Resource Development, a comprehensive plan on inclusive education is underway. Chitra S. Shankar examines the recent developments.
NCPEDP and other stakeholders in the disability sector are watching and waiting… To see if the process which Javed Abidi, Executive Director, NCPEDP, terms a “silent revolution” moves one step further. The issue in the spotlight is that of inclusive education, which will be brought up in Parliament for discussion in the present session by the Minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh. The issue has been a subject of discussion for over a decade; NCPEDP has also been involved in the issue for some time. It had undertaken a detailed study last year to get a clear picture of the present scenario in the field of education. One needs to go back a few months to understand the strategic campaign launched for inclusive education, as well as the beginning of all the debate and discussion on the subject.
The concept of inclusive education has featured in many discussions over the past several years. However, 'Education For All' remains a mere slogan. The hollowness of claims made regarding setting up an inclusive educational system were revealed by NCPEDP's study in 2003. The organisation had conducted a study of all universities and a representative number of schools and colleges, covering all the States and Union territories in India, with the aim of assessing the accessibility of educational facilities for disabled students in the country. The results of the study were shocking; they substantiated NCPEDP’s claims that the disabled children and youth of the country have no access to the educational system in India. The study revealed that only 0.1% of disabled children and youth have access to higher education. However, The Disability Act, 1995, talks of a 3 per cent reservation. Several universities openly stated that they do not admit students with disabilities. To top it all, many schools and colleges were not even aware of The Disability Act!
The startling facts that came to light through the NCPEDP research study were revealed to the public and policy-makers via a national awareness campaign on ‘Inclusive Education’. This was launched -- deliberately -- on Independence Day, 15 August, 2004, by NCPEDP to drive home the point that in independent India there are disabled persons restricted on account of unfriendly physical infrastructure and prejudiced mindsets. HRD Minister Arjun Singh had inaugurated the event.
Following this, a seminar on ‘Mainstreaming children and youth with disabilities in the Indian educational system’ was organised by NCPEDP on 17 September, 2004. All stakeholders including NGOs, academicians, social activists and government representatives from around the country took active part. The seminar culminated in a Blueprint for future action points required to carry forward NCPEDP’s agenda. The key point in this document is the need for children with disabilities to be included in mainstream schools and the subject of education under the Ministry of HRD to be broadened to include special education, hitherto under the purview of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
NCPEDP’s efforts led to the intervention of HRD Minister Singh who directed that a Committee be formed under the Chairmanship of B.S. Baswan to draw up an action plan to take forward the agenda of Inclusive Education. Subsequently, a meeting on the subject ‘Needs of disabled people in the sphere of education and how they can be met’ was organised on 26 October, 2004, between all the stakeholders of the sector. The core document used for the discussion was NCPEDP’s Blueprint on Inclusive Education. The meeting was attended by senior officials of the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the Ministry of Social Justice. Apart from this, a Committee has also been set up to advice for effective implementation of the scheme of upgrading existing polytechnics to integrate physically disabled students in the mainstream of technical and vocational education. NCPEDP is now a member of the Executive Council of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, or Education For All.
On 30 October, there was a Consultative Meeting in New Delhi to brainstorm and carry forward the key action points to give a thrust to the campaign on Inclusive Education. Stakeholders representing various fields of disability participated and the key debates included special vs. inclusive education, issue of teachers from special schools and regular schools, Ministry of HRD vs. Ministry of Social Justice, and ICDS and elementary and secondary education.
The most significant development was a half-an-hour discussion in the Rajya Sabha on 21 December, 2004, in which Minister Singh clearly expressed his dissatisfaction over the efforts, or the lack of it, by the concerned ministries, regarding disabled students.He made a commitment not only to come up with a comprehensive plan of action but also to table this plan in the Parliament in the present session. This time commitment was seen as a positive development by NCPEDP. This reading was proved right, as the HRD Minister convened a meeting on 17 February, 2005, to discuss the issues (arising out of the Rajya Sabha discussion regarding inclusive education for disabled children) and prepare a Comprehensive Plan of Action for people with disabilities. The meeting was attended by Secretaries and Joint Secretaries of the relevant Ministries and Departments including the UGC and the NCERT. A sub-group – comprising two Joint Secretaries, HRD, Secretary, HRD, Joint Secretary for Disability, Ministry of Social Justice, and a representative from NCPEDP – was formed to draw up an action plan. Continuing the impetus provided by the Minister, this group met twice the same day as well as the next day. The discussion focused on ways of systematising education, looking at the entire gamut of disability and education.
Arjun Singh, Minister, HRD, speaking in the Rajya Sabha:
“… At this moment there is a very disjointed effort, which I will not call an effort at all, even though this Act… was passed many years ago. I would therefore… take up this matter with the Hon. Prime Minster, and, I am sure that he, and his Government, will come out with a comprehensive plan of action, with the required financial backing in a State, where we talk of spending thousands of crores of rupees for this project and that project, I do not think it will be difficult to find that money also. …since the session is coming to an end, of course, in the first week of the next Session, with the help of many friends and colleagues, whom I can identify here and outside, we will try to bring this plan before this august House, and with the help of all the Members who will impart that sanction and that support which, I am sure, will take forward this effort.”
Abidi said that the idea was to see that, as far as possible, the existing education system is made disabled-friendly. The challenge is to do this in a phased manner and to also bring about legislative and policy changes in order to ensure that future work is disabled-friendly. He further stated, “In the past everything was done in a piecemeal manner. It is for the first time in the history of India that we are looking at the issue of inclusive education vis-ŕ-vis education, children and youth, primary, secondary and higher education. We are looking at the entire gamut of issues from the perspective of all disabilities, which is path-breaking.”