Persons with disabilities and their families had many hopes resting on the Budget speech. After all, the prime minister himself had made it quite clear that he held this sector close to his heart – rechristening them divyang and even spending his birthday distributing aids and appliances to them. The Sugamya Bharat Abhiyaan (Accessible India Campaign), launched in 2015, was said to be another highlight of this commitment. And finally, with the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill – which brought the ruling party and the opposition together ostensibly for the betterment of the sector – people with disabilities were led to believe that their lives would change for the better.
Instead, all that the sector got were some references in opening lines of the Budget speech regarding the ‘poor and underprivileged’ sections of society – “Sabka saath sabka vikas (everyone together, everyone progressing). Despite the government’s efforts, they still left this significant population behind.
The only mention this sector finds is in the reference to making of 500 railway stations ‘differently abled friendly by providing lifts and escalators’. The Accessible India Campaign, however, had already taken up this task. Accessibility is much beyond merely lifts and escalators – the latter not being helpful for most persons with disabilities. Specifically, targets were set to ensure that A1 and A and B category railway stations are converted into fully accessible railway stations by July 2016, and 50% of all railway stations ought to be converted into fully accessible ones by March 2018.
In fact, the funding for this does not fall within the railway budget – the Rs 193 crores which were claimed to be ‘exclusively’ for the Accessible India Campaign is budgeted expenditure for 2016-17 under the existing Scheme for Implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act (SIPDA), which is available for any entity obliged to make their infrastructure accessible under the Act. As pointed out in an analysis by the Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, allocating this fund to the Accessible India Campaign is retrogressive as it limits the government efforts towards providing accessibility to infrastructure and services in a limited number of cities, particularly considering that 69.5% of the disabled population reside in rural areas. Also, lest we forget, without rolling stock that is universally designed, persons with disabilities aren’t going to go very far. There is no mention of this, nor is there any report on the commitment of the previous year’s railway budget promise of ‘divyang friendly toilets‘ at railway stations.
The demand for grants by the Department for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities has shown a 9% increase, with most of the expenditure allotted for institutions old and new; only 41% of the expenditure will actually go into demand driven schemes for the welfare of persons with disabilities, even though the new law expands the number of impairments included under such schemes from seven to 19. The Accessible India Campaign and progress therein was absent from the Budget speech and the companion documents, while the SIPDA fund gets a marginal increase of 6.7%. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 creates a national fund for persons with disabilities that finds no mention in the Budget. The statute does not provide for automatic absorption of the SIPDA. The first year of this new law, which seeks to implement India’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, does not look optimistic.
While the prime minister appreciated the need for personal mobility and assistive devices – enough to break Guinness World Records while promoting them – the Scheme for Assistance to Disabled Persons for Purchase/Fitting of Aids and Appliances has actually seen a decline in allocations, with a Rs 20 crore decrease from the revised estimates of the previous year. The Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India has seen no increase in its allocation of Rs 5 crores over the last three financial years despite research and development around prosthetics progressing by the day.
The government has failed to link Budget expenditure to meaningful implementation of the Bill that it enacted in all earnestness, let alone international obligations. Although the estimates on the number of persons with disabilities in India differ – the WHO estimates 15% of the population to be disabled while the Indian census puts the figure at 2.1% of the population – a 0.0039% of specific allocation of the Budget is nothing but abysmal.
Advocacy efforts must focus across ministries to ensure that their service delivery design is inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities, as well as with state governments to do their bit considering disability is a state subject in the constitution. The finance minister’s speech refers to outcome based monitoring of expenditure by the NITI Ayog, but restricts it to expenditure of the scheduled castes and tribes sector. In the case of persons with disabilities, the present lack of disaggregated data collection would make any kind of monitoring meaningless – which is why activists harp upon the demand for collation of disaggregated data, including disability, year after year.
All these efforts, therefore, may prove challenging sans government mandate, but influencing this mandate seems difficult given the failure to recognise the disability sector as a lobby of significance. India is shortly due for review of its compliance with the Committee of Rights for Persons with Disabilities’ State Obligations, which includes the allocation of maximum possible resources towards respecting, protecting and fulfilling rights under the convention. Perhaps civil society may consider this a valuable opportunity to galvanise as an empowered lobby to ensure that rights are guaranteed.
Amba Salelkar is a lawyer with the Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice. The organisation focuses on policy and budget advocacy towards furthering the rights of persons with disabilities.