21.9 million disabled in India, 2.13 % of the total population

Enabling the 21.9 million disabled persons in India

With India signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, laws pertaining to the disabled are likely to undergo a dramatic change. V. Kumara Swamy reports

A fortnight ago, NGO activist Rajiv Ranjan was denied permission to board a flight from Chennai to New Delhi because he was a cerebral palsy patient. Later, the directorate general of civil aviation pulled up the guilty airline. Had there been more awareness about the rights of disabled people and had clear guidelines been issued, the incident could have been avoided, sparing Ranjan needless humiliation.

Shikar Narang also underwent similar humiliation. A dyslexic student, he scored 75 per cent marks in Class XII, and wished to join the University of Delhi (DU) under its three per cent disability quota. But he was denied admission.

The university wasn’t aware that dyslexia came under the purview of the Persons with Disability Act, 1995. Narang challenged the university through a rights group. Finally, Delhi High Court ordered DU to treat dyslexia as a disability.

There are many disabled citizens who face such hurdles not only because of a lack of comprehensive definition of disability in the law, but also because of a lack of understanding of policy-makers about the problems of the disabled and insensitivity towards their rights as individuals.

And this is despite the fact that they constitute 2.13 per cent of the total population. According to the 2001 census, there are 21.9 million persons with disabilities in India. Yet, only 34 per cent of the disabled are employed.

But now there is good news around the corner. With India signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on March 31 this year, and signalling that it will ratify it soon, laws in India are likely to undergo a dramatic change.

The convention describes discrimination on the basis of disability as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. It includes all forms of discrimination, including denial of reasonable accommodation.”

“The convention is a blueprint to end discrimination and exclusion of the physically and mentally disabled in education, jobs and everyday life,” says Ratnabali Ray, founder of Anjali, a Calcutta-based non governmental organisation that works for the mentally disabled.

So those deprived to date have reason to rejoice. “All of us in the disability sector are very happy that India has signed the convention. It means that in addition to our existing laws, the Indian government will now have to adhere to clear-cut international standards and expectations and will also be subject to greater scrutiny,” says Javed Abidi, executive director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), Delhi. “At present, gross discrimination takes place all the time, especially in the private sector. After the convention is adopted and its various tenets become firmly applicable, that would no longer be possible.”

Some of the measures that India would have to take include anti-discrimination legislation, eliminating laws and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities, and considering persons with disabilities when adopting new policies and programmes. Other measures include making services, goods and facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.

Rukmini Sen, a lecturer at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta, highlights another pertinent point. “The most important change that we need is a new definition of disability. The manner in which disability is defined in the Persons with Disability Act, 1995, is a medical understanding of disability. The UN Convention gives a comprehensive combination of medical, social and human rights perspective to disability,” she says.

Some other changes, which have been demanded for long by activists working in the field, are also expected. “The signing of this law means that we have to do away with the Mental Health Act which segregates the feeble-minded and mentally ill for other people’s safety, purity, and to keep society sanitised. That is a colonial concept,” says Ray.

The government would also have to change its local by-laws and make it compulsory for buildings to be easily accessible to the disabled. “Going by the convention, building by-laws of all the states have to change. Transportation also needs to be changed keeping disability in mind,” says Sen.

However, in spite of India having ratified the treaty, it will come into force only after 20 signatories ratify it. Currently, Jamaica is the only country to ratify it. “The secretariat of the convention expects the 20 ratifications by the year’s end,” says Edoardo Bellando of the UN department of public information, New York.

Once the convention comes into force, a committee on the rights of persons with disabilities will monitor its implementation. Countries that ratify the convention will need to report regularly on their progress to the committee.

However, people in the field are divided over India opting out of the optional protocol which would have meant that anybody in the country could have appealed to the UN body under the convention, in case the country was not abiding by the rules. Sen says that by not signing the optional protocol, “accountability in a way has been squandered”.

Ray, however, disagrees. “I feel that it is the right thing to do. India is self-reliant. It can and will take care of addressing violations through its national instruments. We certainly do not want foreign agencies to interfere,” she says.

The onus is now on the Indian government to implement the laws. But the disability organisations will also have to ensure that the government keeps the pledge it makes by ratifying the convention, stresses Bellando.

The ministry for social justice and empowerment has set the ball rolling. “We have approached the Law Commission to suggest changes to various laws to adhere to the convention and once they come out with a report, we will proceed accordingly on this matter and place the amendments before Parliament,” says Ashish Kumar, deputy director general, ministry of social justice and empowerment.

According to the ministry, certain changes to the Persons with Disability Act have already been proposed and consultation seminars in various parts of the country are being held to fine-tune the changes.

“The sincerity of the government of India will be tested, and if we unite and fight for our legitimate rights, I am sure tomorrow will belong to us,” says Abidi.

The Telegraph , Calcutta, 4 July 2007

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