Nearly 30 million people in India are grappling with one or other kind of disability. Given these huge numbers, one would have expected governments and policymakers to proactively address the concerns of the differently-abled people, if not to prioritise them. The ground reality however belies such optimism. For decades, advocacy groups have been raising the concerns of the differently-abled people — demanding the rights due to them as this country’s citizens. Time and again, petitions have been sent off to successive ministers and prime ministers of successive governments, demonstrations have been staged outside different ministries, hoping in vain to draw the attention of indifferent governments to the community’s concerns.
Recently, over 15,000 differently-abled people from across the country, gathered in the hub of Delhi, demanding the incorporation of crucial amendments in the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. The amendments are an attempt to bring India in line with the 21st century understanding of the rights of persons with disabilities as captured in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), ratified by India. Ironically, India was among the first countries to ratify the convention. That was seven years ago. Nothing since has materialised by way of aligning the bill with the UNCRPD.
The amended bill that the government has tabled in the Rajya Sabha is a diluted version of the legislation the Social Justice Ministry earlier put up on its website. The bill’s critics have accused the government of reneging on the amendments that were put together after years of nationwide consultations with advocacy groups. Activists working with differently-abled people maintain that the present legislation is not in sync with the several drafts that were widely deliberated during the pre-legislative process.
Based on the vital amendments, the bill, for the first time, would have been a rights-based legislation. Its focus on transforming the meaning of disability — expanding its definition from the existing medical framework to a social one. The amendments included hiking the quota of government jobs from three to five per cent and underlining the need to make private companies responsible for creating a friendly workplace environment for employees with disabilities.
The present bill, however, reflects very little or nothing of the original ideas which shaped the amendments. If anything, the legislation now works against such an idea. In a newspaper column, authored by Amita Dhanda, head of Centre for Disability Studies in Hyderabad’s NALSAR University of Law, wrote: “A progressive, rights-based law has been transformed into an anachronistic, welfarist legislation...” For instance among other regressive provisions, by allowing plenary guardianship, the bill denies people with psychosocial disabilities the right to make their own life decisions.
For decades, the community of persons with disability has patiently awaited a rights-based legislation. But is this the bill they have aspired for? On the eve of the general elections barely a couple of months from now, the government wants to push through the Disability Rights Bill, regardless of its adverse implications for those it is meant to serve. For the community, it’s a tough call. They could reject the legislation that is so terribly out of sync with their aspirations and settle for a weak amended bill. It’s unlikely that the incorporation of a few progressive clauses would improve the quality of such an ill-drafted bill.