December 3 Disability Day: Realise Realities; Assert Rights
Declared by the United Nations, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities has been celebrated on December 3, each year, since 1992
INDIA has a disabled population of 2.68 crore, as identified by the 2011 census. Fourteen additional conditions were recognised in the 2016 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPD Act) as against only seven recognised earlier. However, age-related disability is not counted for. It is taking all these aspects into account that the WHO estimates that roughly 15 per cent of the world’s population has some form of disability.
But how is this huge number treated? One example would suffice to lay bare the total apathy and disregard towards this population that continues to be stigmatised, discriminated, and condemned to the margins. In response to an unstarred question in the Lok Sabha, the minister of health & family welfare revealed that as of November 30, 2021, only 8,455 disabled people received the first dose of Covid vaccines and a mere 4,120 have received both the doses. Incidentally, the answer was given on December 3, 2021. The irony is not lost. And this, while the powers that be trumpet from rooftops of crossing the one million mark.
Each year, the UN sets a theme for observance of the day in accordance with the obtaining situation. This year’s theme, is the “leadership and participation of people with disabilities (PwDs) towards an inclusive, accessible, and sustainable post-Covid-19 world”.
IMPACT OF COVID
Without doubt, Covid, has had a disastrous impact on the lives of disabled people. In particular, accessing food, regular life-sustaining healthcare, loss of employment etc have been big challenges. A study revealed that 70 per cent of children accessing online education during the pandemic period reported that their learning experiences were very poor; 13.4 per cent of respondents who lost jobs due to Covid-19 are yet to get any job, with a larger impact on those engaged in small and medium business and other forms of self-employment; and 66.3 per cent of those using assistive devices faced difficulties in purchase, repairs etc. Distribution of aids and appliances were few and far between. Women and girls with disabilities were subjected to increased violence and abuse.
In the face of these challenges, there has been an abject failure on the part of the Indian government to address these concerns.
A huge chunk of the disabled population continues to be out of the coverage of social security measures. Even the Rs 1000 promised in the initial days of the lockdown targeted only beneficiaries of the Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme, a minuscule 3.8 per cent of the disabled population. In most of the states those without disability certificates were denied even the meagre measures that were put in place during this period.
The lack of disability data also impedes taking concrete measures to address concerns of disabled people during such calamities. Though, the District Disaster Management Authority is mandated under Sec 8(3) of the RPD Act to maintain lists of disabled people in the district and take suitable measures during calamities and disasters, this information is hardly available, or, used. Except for Kerala, there is no information of any other state having used such lists. Kerala, first, during the floods in 2018, and later on, during the pandemic, used such lists to reach out and provide relief to the disabled.
UNDERMINING PROVISIONS OF THE RPD ACT
This December also marks five years since the passage of the RPD Act, legislated to give effect to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) that India ratified in 2007. This marked a paradigm shift from viewing disability from a bio-medical and charity model. Based on a rights-based framework, as the nomenclature suggests, if even partially implemented, it can bring about a sea change in the condition of the disabled in the country. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Act we had warned that getting this implemented would be a huge challenge, as this would mean not only a change in mindset but also would involve adequate budgetary allocations. Since 2014, ever since the Modi government was ushered into office, there has been a gradual reduction in allocations to the department of empowerment of persons with disabilities. In the 2021-22 budget, as compared to the previous year, there has been a drastic reduction of 12 per cent!
It needs recall that misutilising the Covid situation, the government proposed amendments to the RPD Act seeking to dilute its penal provisions and make offences compoundable. Faced with stiff resistance, it beat a hasty retreat.
Another attempt at undermining the rights guaranteed under the RPD Act is the notification issued by the ministry of social justice & empowerment (MSJE). The August 18, 2021 notification grants exemption to several central police services from the purview of reservation in jobs.
While the RPD bill was still being debated, we had opposed the provision in Sec 3(3) that legitimised discrimination on the basis of disability. Similarly, we had also pointed out that the exemption clause built into Sec 34 on employment would work to the disadvantage of the disabled. Our worst fears are coming true.
While it is no one’s contention that combat duties can be performed by disabled persons, there are non-combat posts that have been identified in the January 2021 notification issued by the MSJE that lists the jobs identified for the disabled viz office assistant, wireless operator, telephone operator, fingerprint reader, typist, stenographers etc. Taking those posts also out of the purview of reservations in these forces, militates against the letter and spirt of the RPD Act and strikes at the very roots of equality and non-discrimination, which are its guiding principles.
Additionally, rights like reservation in employment in the public sector become meaningless, with the pursuit of privatisation of public sector units, banks, insurance, railways etc that the current dispensation is pursuing in full steam.
The commercialisation of education, which is the thrust of the New Education Policy 2020, will also deprive huge sections of the disabled population, the right to education.
The central government is also pushing ahead with its proposal to merge/cluster various institutions that cater to persons with disabilities, which will adversely affect the services that are being delivered by these institutions. This, in turn, is in pursuit of the proposal of the department of expenditure, ministry of finance which set up a commission in 2014 to recommend ways to “rationalise” government expenditure. Further, the Niti Aayog had set up a committee in 2017 to review all Autonomous Bodies (ABs). The committee also reviewed ABs under the department of empowerment of persons with disabilities (DEPwD) with the express purpose of cutting down budgetary support.
When there is a need to decentralise and reach out to the unreached, such centralisation will lead to the contrary. The proposed takeover by the government of the functions of the National Trust (catering to those with intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy etc), constituted under an Act of parliament, will not just end its autonomy but will also impact the various services that it renders.
It is no coincidence that the National Trust has been without a chair since 2014. More deplorable is the fact that the office of the chief commissioner for persons with disabilities has also been lying vacant for years together. This is also the case with the Rehabilitation Council of India. Currently, the secretary of the DEPwD is the officiating head of all these three important bodies.
In yet another infringement on the powers of the states, the central government through a notification has made the process of issuing of disability certificates online, since June 1, 2021, through the Swavalamban portal, which is used for the registering for the Unique Disability ID (UDID). Apart from the process being cumbersome, most disabled people, who do not have access to internet and are not tech and language savvy will have to rely on agencies and establishments that will charge them a hefty fee for filling the forms and completing the process.
The progress in the issuance of UDID cards, launched after a campaign lasting several years, has been very tardy. In response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the government revealed that only 59,19,653 cards have been issued as of July 28, 2021, four years after the first phase of issuing the cards began. West Bengal fares the worst with just nine cards issued. Ironically, many departments/ministries of the central government refuse to accept the validity of such cards.
Many activists lose sight of the intricate connection between human rights and disability. While Stan Swamy, a person with Parkinson’s (recognised as a disability under the RPD Act) died in custody, it needs to be recalled that it was not until a campaign was conducted that he received as basic a thing as a sipper. Dr Saibaba continues to languish in jail, denied disability-specific accommodations.
Also to be borne in mind is that communal violence not only adversely impacts people with disabilities, but has also led to people getting disabled on account of it. North East Delhi saw the use of acid during communal violence and many people lost vision because of it. Despite demands, pellet guns have not been banned. Scores of people were blinded owing to its rampant use in Kashmir.
Nothing more can be as illustrating as the scene witnessed at this year’s Disability Awards function on December 3 at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. Since the stage did not have a ramp and access to wheelchair users was denied, the president of India, in a break from protocol, descended down the stage to give away the awards! Pity and sympathy were all pervasive. Two hoots to their right to access and to be honoured on the stage, not to talk of their dignity.
The dispensation at the centre is content with coining patronising terms like “divyang” while denying the disabled their basic rights. As we observe and celebrate World Disability Day we cannot be oblivious to these realities.