Government Ignores Vulnerability of Persons With Disabilities During Natural Disasters, Says Activist

On filing RTIs with two government authorities, activist Satendra Singh learnt that they have no data or plan on how to make disaster risk reduction and management more inclusive.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: A disproportionately high number of persons with disabilities suffer and die due to natural disasters, and this has been proved several times in India. Yet, an RTI activist has claimed that none of the divisions of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had any information on the copies of a report submitted towards the achievement of goal 7 of the Incheon strategy (disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction or DiDRR) or changes done in accordance with Article 11 of UN Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) on situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies in national policy and the national plan of disaster management.

Reacting to the failure of the NDMA to provide him with information pertaining to these important plans of action, RTI activist Satendra Singh, an associate professor of physiology at the University College of Medical Science and GTB Hospital in Delhi, said it was ironical that the NDMA did not have information about any of these measures despite India hosting the first Asian Ministerial Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction after the advent of the Sendai framework in November this year. “All of my questions were actually disability indicators based on the Sendai framework, Incheon strategy, UNCRPD and Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.

Singh had also asked the NDMA for details of disability-inclusive disaster management programmes, the number of people trained on it in the last five years, the proportion of accessible emergency shelters, the percentage of deaths of disabled in disasters and details of disability organisations consulted. However, he lamented, “None of these were addressed by the nodal ministry on disaster management body. Similar neglect was shown by NIDM (National Institute of Disaster Management).”

Observing that award-winning disability rights activist Abha Khetarpal, had also met with NIDM authorities to show her disaster management mobile app to them, Singh said despite a number of persons with disabilities coming forward, the annual training calendar of the NIDM till March 2015 does not have a single course on DiDRR despite having 86 national ‘train the trainer’ courses during the period.

Singh said the problems faced by persons with disabilities in times of natural disaster are very acute. “As the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill was being introduced in Rajya Sabha, a woman with muscular dystrophy was battling for her life because of havoc created by Cyclone Vardah in Chennai. The 20-year old was on a ventilator and the power shutdown because of the cyclone meant that she quickly needed to arrange an alternative. This was not a one-off event,” he said.

Late last year, during the Chennai floods, he said while the media was showing stories pertaining to the damage and the subsequent recovery, what was largely missed out was the experiences of people with disabilities. “It was left for people with disabilities to raise their voice alone. Chennai’s Disability Rights Alliance started a Facebook page on ‘Disabled in Chennai: Surviving the rains crisis‘,” he said.

Even during the Hudhud cyclone in Vishakhapatnam in 2014, Singh said the disaster preparedness for disabled persons was squarely exposed as Sai Padma, founder of Global-Aid and a wheelchair user, was stuck in her house for 20 days because a tree fell at the entrance.

Noting that persons with disabilities, despite being the world’s largest minorities, remain the most vulnerable group when it comes to all sorts of disasters, the disability rights activist said though India has formulated all policies and ratified the UNCRPD ten years ago, it still does not have “disability-inclusive management”.

With neither the NDMA nor NIDM having any data on disability, as per their RTI responses, he said persons with disabilities now await the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill to get the president’s assent.

He said the UN global survey of 2013 had also shown how a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities suffer and die in disasters because their needs are ignored and neglected. “They are often left totally reliant on the kindness of family, friends and neighbours for their survival and safety. Just 17% of respondents were aware of a disaster management plan in their city, town or community and just 14% said they had been consulted on it. At the same time, 50% of respondents expressed a wish to participate in community disaster management.”

Singh, who had filed RTI applications with the NIDM and the NDMA in September and October 2016 to learn about disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction, said he was taken aback by their response.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi (also chairperson of the NDMA) had saluted the spirit of disabled persons, calling them ‘heroes’ on World Disability Day in 2014 and those with ‘divine abilities’ in 2015. However, these ‘heroes’ may become ‘disabled’ in disasters because of disability-exclusive disaster management. Disasters create a new generation of disabled people and this is one population of which anybody can become part of any time,” he said.