The reservation for persons with disabilities in India is now more than two decades old. When the Persons with Disability Act, 1995 was passed by parliament, it was seen as a landmark in the history of disability rights legislation. Under the Act, persons with disabilities got 3% reservation in both government jobs and higher educational institutions. The Act itself was a result of decades of struggle by various disability rights groups and hence the PWD Act, 1995 was considered a big win for all stakeholders involved and millions of persons with disabilities in the country.
Persons with disabilities constitute one of the largest minority groups in India, with more than 26.8 million people as per the 2011 Census and around 80-100 million as per World Bank data. Despite constituting such a large part of the population, persons with disabilities have to fight for their basic rights in courts. To implement the 3% disability reservation, where there was 1% each for orthopedically handicapped, visually handicapped and hearing handicapped, disability rights groups and individuals had to take legal recourse time and again. Educational institutions and successive governments both in states and at the Centre violated the mandated disability reservation quota.
The list of cases is huge – successful candidates in various examinations were denied seats in government jobs as well as in educational institutions. A famous case is that of Ira Singhal, the first person with a disability to top the civil services exam. She was denied a posting in 2010 when she cleared the UPSC examination; the authorities cited her inability to push, pull and lift as a reason for denying her the posting. She had to fight her case in the Central Administrative Tribunal, which she ultimately won and joined the Indian Revenue Service in 2014. The point here is that even if a determined candidate fights back and wins, the system makes sure she wastes crucial years and faces unnecessary stress.
Rather than being an enabler for persons with disabilities, the system shows apathy towards them and often looks down upon them. Their disability is seen as their inability to perform tasks assigned. The pre-conceived and misconceived notions about the ability of a disabled person are one of the core reasons behind the lack of intent among the authorities to implement the disability reservation. The situation is graver when it comes to higher government posts, which include Group A and Group B government jobs where the representation of persons with disabilities is abysmally low. Same is the case with the representation of persons with disabilities in higher education, especially in MA, MPhil and PhD courses.
Take, for instance, the example of one of India’s finest universities – Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The varsity prides itself for accommodating and giving representation to students from all sections of society, and in relative terms fares better than most other universities. However, when it comes to implementation of the disability reservation, the picture is quite gloomy. As per a Right to Information reply regarding the total number of candidates with disabilities who were recruited as faculty members (assistant professors) in JNU across all departments since 2014, this number is just six, which includes four orthopedically handicapped candidates and two hearing handicapped. No visually impaired person has been recruited as an assistant professor in this time period.
In the MPhil/PhD admissions too, only 76 candidates (60 male, 16 female) have been selected across all departments in the last four years from the total approximately 5,000 seats. The School of International Studies had selected only 14 candidates (13 male, one female) with disabilities in the last four years, out of an approximate total of 700 seats offered. If one looks more microscopically, last year no candidate with disability was selected in the School of International Studies (SIS), while a year before that only one such candidate was selected out of the total 232 candidates selected for MPhil/PhD. The data reveals one more thing: even among candidates with disabilities, women are more marginalised than men.
The RTI reply also shows that there is no dearth of candidates with disabilities who are applying for MPhil and PhD courses in the last four years. This year, the JNU administration violated disability reservation in faculty recruitment as well as in the selection of students in MPhil/PhD courses. As a result, the Delhi high court had to stay the JNU admission process until the reservation is implemented. The declaration of results of the JNU entrance exam 2018-19 for MPhil/PhD programmes has been delayed, as the matter is still sub judice. Similarly, in the latest advertisement for faculty recruitment by the university in January, not a single post was reserved for persons with disabilities. This matter too went to the Delhi high court after a plea was made by NGO Sambhavna. The whole recruitment process was stalled after that and has not started again yet.
Most of the time, institutions which do not select candidates with disabilities just use the standard excuse of ‘not found suitable’. This practice is rampant across institutions in general. The example of JNU and what happened to Singhal is just the tip of the iceberg. The idea here is not to single out an institution, but rather showcase that even the supposedly best institutions in the country, which fare better on various other parameters, fail miserably when it comes to implementing disability reservations with seriousness.
The Rights to Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act, 2016 has increased the quota for disability reservation from 3% to 4% in government jobs and from 3% to 5% in higher educational institutions. However, the situation still remains the same. It is not the quantum of reservation which determines its implementation, but the intent of authorities. Some authorities even offer a rather strange ‘calculation’ as an excuse for not implementing – for example, if a department has just 15 seats in total, the argument given for not offering even a single seat for a person with disability is that how will 4% reservation be calculated for less than 15 seats.
Since the number of jobs for higher positions is smaller, as is the situation in research programmes (MPhil/PhD), similar situations arise and the authorities generally give faulty mathematical explanations in order to deny candidates with disabilities seats. As a result, year after year, a huge backlog of vacancies is created for persons with disabilities. To save face, governments therefore have to do special recruitment drives for candidates with disabilities. This kind of step further marginalises persons with disabilities as they are not allowed to be recruited through common competitive exams.
As per the 100-point recruitment roster under the RPwD Act, the first, 26th, 51st and 76th seats belong to persons with disabilities. Despite having such clear-cut provisions for the implementation of disability reservation, it all comes to the attitude, willingness and intentions of authorities who make life difficult for persons with disabilities. The struggle against this systemic apathy continues.
Martand Jha is a freelance writer based in New Delhi.