He is a man who says: 'Where there is a will, there is a way.' For years he has never tired of fighting for the cause of India's 60 million disabled people. His efforts, and his colleagues' timely help, led to the passing of the 1995 Disability Act.
He speaks of disabled people as an invisible minority: not as subjects of charity or sympathy but as productive and resourceful people, able to contribute to the country's exchequer.
A lone crusader of sorts, he is now engaged in a battle with the Election Commission to make the poll process disabled-friendly. He is also ready to stand as a Lok Sabha candidate from New Delhi constituency, unmindful of winning or losing but certain to send a clear message across the board.
Meet Javed Abidi, Executive Director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) and Convenor, Disabled Rights Group (DRG), who spoke about the course and direction of the nascent disabled movement to Syed Sultan Kazi, the day before DRG planned a gherao of the office of the Election Commission on April 2.
What is your battle with the Election Committee all about?
The issue is not of any battle. It is about asserting the democratic rights of millions of disabled people in this country. We are trying to apprise the Election Commission (EC) of the difficulties faced by disabled people while casting their votes. We want to ask the Commission whether it is aware of the laws of the country; whether it is aware of the Disability Act, which clearly states that disabled people should have access to public places.
At present we are not asking for access to all places, but only in poll stations, so that disabled people can vote with dignity and without any help or assistance. That means creating temporary wooden ramps and putting Braille numbers on EVMs. The cost is minimal: about Rs 500-2,000. If the Commission can spend thousands of rupees in each polling booth, why can't it spend a small amount to help disabled voters?
Creating wooden ramps is very simple and software is available to print numbers in Braille. All that is required is to order the DCs and SDMs of each state in charge of poll stations to implement these provisions.
Why hasn't the EC responded to your demands favourably?
We do not know why. This is the fourth Lok Sabha election since the Disability Act. We are not going to tolerate this attitude any longer. After all, our demands are neither illogical nor difficult to implement.
How long should we wait for our due share? We expected help from the Commission but so far have had no response to our demands and requests. Instead we faced indecent behaviour and arrogance from the officials during our dharna last month.
You cannot say it is a lone battle. Lakhs of our disabled brothers and sisters in the country are with us in this fight. We have a strong National Disability Network, spread across 150 districts, which is supporting us. This apart, we are supported by human rights organisations, women's bodies, children's associations and civil rights activists. India's disability movement has realised it cannot exist in isolation like an island cut off from the mainland. Hence, we have been in touch with those who are willing to stand by our side.
Was your decision to contest this election the last resort?
Despite our sincere efforts, nobody is willing to listen to us. There is no option but to jump into the poll fray. This, I hope, will help to assert our identity and get our voice heard. We can no longer be mute spectators to our woes and remain on the sidelines. My decision to contest from New Delhi constituency is not personal. It is a carefully crafted decision taken by the Disabled Rights Groups (DRG). It was only after a unanimous resolution was passed, urging me to contest, that I took this decision.
Have you have been seeking Congress support?
It is not that we are pro-Congress. We have informed all major parties of our decision to contest but the BJP has already announced its candidates for Delhi. Congress is yet to announce the list. So we have urged the party not to put up any candidate against us and support my candidature. Other parties are also urged to consider our proposal. My candidature is certain whether I get support from parties or not.
Since you are close to Congress, support from the party should not be a hurdle.
My closeness to the Congress is not political. I have known party president Sonia Gandhi for the past 12 years and worked with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation for five years. Whether my personal relationship can help us in getting support from the Congress for my candidature only time can say. I cannot speculate on this or blackmail the Congress president for my candidature.
Contesting an election requires resources. How do you plan to raise them?
We are in for low-key campaigning with little resources to spend. We have urged our supporters and well-wishers to support our political initiative, both at home and abroad. We cannot compete in terms of high-pitch campaigning by the big parties but we leave it to the wisdom of the voters to vote for Javed Abidi.
It appears the disabled movement has entered into the political realm.
We are still non-political in nature but we have decided to move beyond our advocacy identity. Our realm is still non-political, only the approach has changed. We have no political motive; otherwise I would have contested from any party ticket instead of seeking support from parties or standing as an independent candidate.
Will the political fight end after the polls are over?
We are very clear about what we are doing. The paradigm shift in our approach will not be restricted to this election alone. Our future is linked to this. The issues are not whether we win or lose. It is all about ensuring the disability sector has a rightful share in the Indian polity and we will continue to fight to get our voices heard.
To continue to wage a continuous battle for the invisible minority requires a strong, united, decentralised disabled movement. Are all these still lacking?
The disabled movement is relatively new. It was only in the 1990s that it came into its own, more so after our struggle to get the Disability Act passed in 1995. Until the late 1990s there was no cross-disabled unity. Since then a united movement had emerged. We realised that to fight against the system we need to be united. We have a proper system of disabled unity in the country. There is a national coordinator in Delhi, in touch with respective state partners, who are in turn in touch with district partners. We even have partners in places like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The number of disabled people in the country is still contested. Is this deliberate?
Whatever the official estimate, our conservative estimate says that in India 5-6% of people are disabled. UN figures for the USA are 9%, China 5%, Pakistan 4.9% and Nepal 5%. For the first time, and after much persuasion, the 2001 census included disabled people in its count. Its figure for the disabled should match our estimates, I hope. It is really amazing that the government had never before thought it important to collect information on its invisible minority.
Core issues of the disabled are still yet to be redressed. Doesn't this worry you?
As I said, political and official apathy is playing with our lives. The insensitive behaviour and attitude of these people is depriving us of our rights and dues. It took three years to appoint a full time disability commissioner: if this is not apathy what is?
Even now, the majority of States do not have full time disability commissioners, not even in Delhi. It was only after the intervention of the Supreme Court that the person in charge of the social welfare department was given the ad hoc charge of disability commissioner.
The serious issue for the disabled movement today is access. Our access to public transport, schools, colleges, offices, and other public spots is still severely restricted. Imagine how badly marginalised we are because of this. Even after 55 years of independence we do not have a disabled-friendly bus in Delhi. Our access to places is linked to our education, our employment and our independence and self-sufficiency.
What is your source of strength?
My source of inspiration is the love and affection we get from civil society. This is the beauty of India. Though we are seen with contempt by the political and official class, the people are not lacking in their love and cooperation for us in our struggle.
If elected, which issue will you first raise?
Access. With this is linked our future. We want parties and the bureaucracy to understand our needs, our basic human rights and hear our voices. We are human beings and we also have wishes, hopes and a desire to do something, just like any other normal human soul.
(This is an edited version of an article originally published in Indian Currents Magazine, April 11, 2004.)