RANI Rasmoni Avenue, one of the busiest roads in Kolkata, turned into a sea of yellow as more than 12,000 disabled persons gathered at the call of Paschimbanga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani, the West Bengal affiliate of National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD). This was in response to the call given by the NPRD at its second conference held at Virudhunagar in September 2017 for nationwide action on December 4 demanding the speedy implementation of the Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016. The conference had cautioned that the Act that had come about after big struggles conducted throughout the country would only be implemented if an equal if not more vigorous struggle is conducted.
The Act passed at the fag end of the 2016 winter session of parliament enhances the officially recognised number of disabilities from the seven in the 1995 Act, to 21. Conditions like deafblindness, hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, autism, thalassemia, Parkinson’s disease, sickle cell disease, dwarfism, muscular dystrophy, speech and language disability, specific learning disabilities (like dyslexia, dysgraphia etc), multiple disabilities and acid attack victims are the other conditions that are now recognised.
The Act while making cards issued in one state valid throughout the country, gives legal backing to the universal ID for persons with disabilities which was a major demand of the NPRD.
This Act provides for social security for persons with disability. It also says that “the quantum of assistance to persons with disabilities under such schemes and programmes shall be at least twenty-five per cent higher than the similar schemes applicable to others”. It also makes provisions for support for women with disabilities for livelihood and for upbringing of their children, free health care specially in rural areas, provision of aids and appliances, unemployment allowance, care-giver allowance, insurance scheme, free health care etc.
Inaccessibility of public and private buildings, spaces, roads, transport, educational institutions, study material, communication, TV etc has been one of the biggest hindrances as far as the disabled are concerned. The Act while specifying the measures to be taken by appropriate governments for accessibility has set a time limit of five years for making existing infrastructure and premises accessible. The Act also has specific provisions for women and children with disabilities. Reservation in promotions, for employees with disabilities, has also been provided for in the Act.
One of the major drawbacks of the 1995 Act was the total absence of penal provisions. Lack of penal provisions for non-compliance, gave violators a free reign. This is addressed in this Act.
Despite the passage of nearly a year since the Act was passed the progress towards implementing it has been tardy. Though the Act mandates that rules under the Act have to be framed within six months of the Act coming into force, an overwhelming majority of the states have not done so till date.
Immediately after the Act was passed, we had reacted that implementation would be a huge task and disabled persons in the country would have to constantly fight.
The struggle for getting this law implemented law has begun in right earnest. For the mobilisation on December 4 at Kolkata, disabled persons travelled from far and wide from every nook and corner of West Bengal. Those coming from the far away districts spent the night at the Howrah and Sealdah railway stations. The December chill could not diminish their zeal or enthusiasm. “No demand can be achieved without hardship or toil,” said Efajul Sekh, a person with locomotor disability who had come all the way from Murshidabad.
This mass mobilisation was the culmination of a three-month long campaign conducted by the Paschimbanga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani. The Sammilani at its eighth conference had also passed a resolution to conduct a state-wide campaign on this demand. As part of this, memorandums were submitted to the district magistrates of all the districts on September 7 and mass-signature collection drive was initiated. This sustained campaign had created a momentum among the cadres which was reflected in the massive mobilisation.
Addressing the huge gathering, general secretary of the NPRD, Muralidharan, recounted the long and arduous struggle conducted by the NPRD and its state affiliates at various levels which led to the passage of the Act. He also criticised the central government for its delay to come up with guidelines for certification. Criticising the state government for the inordinate delay and sheer apathy in framing the rules, he called upon the members of Paschimbanga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani to prepare for more intensive struggle to see that all the positive provisions of this law get implemented.
Former Supreme Court judge and former chairperson of West Bengal Human rights commission Asoke Kumar Ganguly, expressed his solidarity with the movement and ensured his wholehearted support. He criticised the TMC government for its indifference towards the issues of persons with disability. Eminent advocate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya criticised the functioning of the state government and cautioned the organisers to be prepared for a long drawn struggle. He also pledged his support in this struggle. Veteran actor Chandan Sen also spoke supporting the demands.
Sujan Chakraborty, the leader of the Left parties in the state assembly, criticised the government for unwarranted delaying in framing of rules. “This apathy makes it abundantly clear where the priorities of this government lie!” he said. He promised to take up this issue and all other issues plaguing the lives of persons with disabilities on the floor of the assembly. The programme was also addressed by Tanmoy Bhattacharya, another member of the state legislature.
Kanti Ganguly, general secretary of Paschimbanga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani and the president of NPRD, who, earlier in the day, led a delegation to meet Partha Chatterjee, minister in charge of legislative affairs, briefed the gathering about what transpired at the meeting and the way forward. He said the minister had assured them that he would give due consideration to the issues raised. However, we cannot wait indefinitely for them to consider it, he cautioned and called upon the huge audience to prepare for tougher struggles and bigger mobilisations. Amidst thunderous applause, he declared that the organisation would hold sit-in demonstrations in all the district headquarters after three months if no significant progress is made in the implementation of this law. “Don’t force us to hold yet another law-violation programme in Kolkata,” he warned.
The mood of the people was aptly summed up by Bubai Bag, a professor of history working in Bagnan College, Howrah, a person with locomotor disability. He said, “in 2001, on a day like this, sitting amidst such a crowd, I realised for the first time that in this world, I am not alone who suffers because of disability. There are many more like me. Therefore, we must come together to dismantle all the barriers lying in front of us. We must struggle and only then, we will succeed in overcoming the challenges! That gathering gave me enormous courage, enormous confidence! I hope this rally would give confidence to everyone like me!” Earlier, Bag was felicitated for his achievements in the field of higher studies. The medal winners of Special Olympics and other disabled persons who distinguished themselves in other areas overcoming all odds were also felicitated.
Reports have also come in of protest programmes being held in various other states. In Tamil Nadu, despite incessant rains owing to cyclone Ockhi the protest programme was held in 26 districts on December 1. Vice President Jansi Rani participated in the programme in Chennai while NPRD secretary Namburajan participated at Cuddalore. In Telangana, protest programmes were held in 18 district centres on November 28. The protests were led by NPRD joint secretary Adivaiah. In Andhra Pradesh, protests were held in ten districts on December 2. In Karnataka, on November 29 the programme was held in 11 districts. Rangapa Dasar, vice president, NPRD led the protest in Bengaluru. In Haryana a state-wide mobilisation was held on November 28 at Karnal before the chief minister’s house in which other organisations also participated on a broad charter of demands including implementation of the RPD Act. Muralidharan and NPRD joint secretary Rishikesh participated.