Lakshadweep: Disability Rights Activists Hold Another Protest as Accessibility Issues Continue

The district magistrate had passed an order banning protests for the duration of the G20 meet.

Bangaram, an uninhabited island and an international tourist destination in Lakshadweep, hosted a G20 event on sustainable development on May 1. The assistant district magistrate, Kavaratti, had released an order in April banning  all unauthorised protests on the islands between April 27 and May 5. 

The order claimed that such protests, while the G20 meet was on, will bring disrepute to the islands’ hospitality. This order was passed to stop the protests planned by the Lakshadweep Disableds’ Welfare Association (LDWA). 

Despite the prohibition order, they marched to the secretariat on April 27,  got arrested and were later released from the police station. They were demanding the proper implementation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act (2016) and highlighting other basic issues concerning people with disabilities. 

This was their second march to the secretariat in three months. When these demands were first raised in February, social welfare and tribal affairs director Tanvir Ahmed had agreed to resolve their problem within 15 days. However, when the LDWA enquired about the progress, they were taken into custody and later released. 

Now, the LDWA has filed a criminal complaint with the Superintendent of Police (SP) accusing Ahmed of causing financial losses to members of the community and for insulting them in public. They quoted Section 92 of the RPWD Act (2016)  which says

Whoever –

  • Intentionally insults or intimidates with intend to humiliate a person with disability in any place with in public view ; Shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend up to five years and with fine.

They have not received a reply from the SP office yet. 

The RPWD Act (2016) came into existence by replacing the PWD Act, 1995, in tandem with the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities which mandates a commissioner for disabilities in all states. 

In Lakshadweep, this is an ex officio post for Ahmed as the director, social welfare and tribal affairs who is also in charge of printing and stationery, legal metrology, art and culture, transport and managing director LCMF, in addition to being the Disability Commissioner for Lakshadweep. 

The RPWD Act mandates 4% reservation in government jobs for people with disabilities. However, of the 5,000 employees working under the Lakshadweep administration, the number of employees with disability is less than 75, according to LDWA secretary Barkathulla. This number includes the candidates selected through merit. 

Late Dineshwar Sharma, the previous administrator, had issued an order in 2020 to compensate for this disparity and reserved 5% of all contract appointments in every department for people with disabilities. 

While this was a big relief for the community, the mass disengagement drive conducted by the new administration in 2021 reversed the proportional representation of government employees with disabilities. 

Ten multi rehabilitation workers who looked after the needs of the disabled community across the nine islands were also disengaged as part of this drive. All those trained to enrol and issue Unique Disability ID (UDID) to persons with disabilities were also disengaged, increasing the difficulty in getting a UDID. 

Also read: SC Says Student Suffering From Benchmark Disability Should Be Admitted to MBBS Course

For 13-year-old Sajila Beegum, this could result in a lack of access to education. The Agathi island native has a permanent disability of the limbs and brain and needs an electric wheelchair to go to school. 

Until the fifth standard, Sajila’s mother carried her to the nearby Junior Basic School North, but now, to attend the sixth grade, she has to go to the Senior Basic School which is further away. 

Sajilas’ mother is a daily-wage labourer and her father is a fisherman. Her mother told The Wire that a request for the wheelchair will be submitted to Agathi’s medical officer. If it is not sanctioned then we have no option but to stop her education, her mother said. 

There are no permanent teachers for students with special needs in any of Lakshadweep’s schools but those hired contractually under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) are still working. It has been learned from reliable sources that there are not enough skilled teachers available for filling up all the contractual vacancies for this post. 

Inaccessibile transport 

Ships are the lifeline of Lakshadweep islands, but to what extent they can become an inclusive lifeline is a very difficult question. There are eight high speed crafts (HSC) and five all-weather ships operating in Lakshadweep islands at the moment. HSCs are usually used for inter-island passenger operations during the fair season from September to May. 

All the passenger ships active in the Lakshadweep sea were commissioned after 2007 and yet none of them have an accessible toilet or bathroom facility for persons with disabilities. The only accessible toilet is on the MV Kavaratti, the largest passenger ship available with a capacity to hold 700 passengers, that hasn’t been opened for public use yet.

In February 2018, the Lakshadweep administration released an order making it mandatory to provide relevant assistive devices to persons with disabilities. While the order was a welcome gesture, it lacked clarity on who would be responsible for this exercise. The order didn’t mention a particular officer but spoke in general to all employees of the Department of Port as well as the public at large.

The administration with the exception of certain officers is sympathetic towards the cause of persons with disabilities; the problem lies in the system. Welfare measures are not coordinated properly so that they can reach the targeted population.

The disability commissioner being the director of the Department of Social Welfare holds many other charges and is unable to take care of the community. Furthermore, his tenure there would be for a maximum of two years and most of the times it is less than one year after which the Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli Civil Services (DANICS) officer is  transferred to another department or union territory . 

Also read: Poorly Worded Ads, Apathy Are Depriving Doctors With Disabilities of Job Opportunities

Most states are now running District Disabled Rehabilitation Centres (DDRCs) that act as a converging point for all the services and facilities including the distribution of assistive devices. This is the main reason why Sajitha Beegum is facing difficulty in approaching the authorities, as there is no single point of contact for persons with disabilities in Lakshadweep.

DDRCs were established in 1999 with the support of state governments; later it was funded through a scheme called Scheme for Implementation of Rights of Persons With Disabilities Act (SIPDA). 

The website of the Department of Empowerment of Person with Disabilities shows that the Lakshadweep DDRC is in the list of approved DDRCs. From the documents accessed by The Wire, it is understood that Rs 1.47 crore were already allocated by the Ministry under National Programme for Rehabilitation of Person with Disabilities (NPRPD) to the Lakshadweep administration in  1999 by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and deposited with the then Syndicate Bank (Now Canara). Accrued interest had been utilised by the department but the amount is still available at the administration’s disposal. 

The official website of the Lakshadweep administration lists DDRC as the major achievements of the social welfare department. 

Lakshadweep Disabled Welfare Association is doing a commendable job despite challenging circumstances. They have established the first ever special needs school named ‘Chakkara’ in Androth Island. Chakkara, established in association with Thanal Charitable trust, now accommodates 21 children with disabilities. 

The administration, even though it blocked the protest march due to G20, called a meeting of the LDWA delegates to decide a course of action. The district collector asked for two months’ time to look into the demands raised by the association. President Barkathulla told The Wire that the difficulty faced by the organisation is not a new one but they have full confidence in the current dispensation and are waiting for positive developments. 

Salahuddin is a researcher.