When it Comes to Disability Rights, Modi Regime is High on Gimmicks, Low on Delivery Say Activists

Persons with disabilities want tangible change such as jobs with the government, not a new term like 'divyang' to identify with.

Representational image. Credit: Anjan Chatterjee/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Representational image. Credit: Anjan Chatterjee/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A spectacle involving persons with disabilities (PwDs) at a special event organised for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Gujarat for his birthday has left many disability rights activists peeved with the state government. According to them, the Modi government has done very little to bring about tangible changes in the lives of PwDs over the last two years.

Satendra Singh, rights activist and associate professor of physiology at University College of Medical Sciences and GTB Hospital, Delhi, pointed out that while the Gujarat government spent crores on its recent gimmicks involving disabled people, the state has not hired a single person with disability for a government job in the last 14 years, effectively violating the prescribed 3% quota that states are expected to adhere to. A public interest litigation in the matter is pending before the Gujarat high court and the Supreme Court.

In October 2013, the Supreme Court issued directions to the Centre, states, union territories and public sector undertakings to reserve 3% of their jobs for the disabled under a law to ensure they get equal opportunity and protect their rights. The Centre and Gujarat government’s inaction on increasing employment for PwDs goes against this ruling.

In 2013, the SC bench, chaired by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, had observed that employment was critical for the empowerment of PwDs. Noting how “social and practical barriers prevent them from joining the workforce”, it called for “bringing them into society, based on their capabilities.”

Stating that these governments have a “categorical obligation” to protect the rights of the disabled under the constitution and international treaties on human rights, the bench had also laid down that “reservation for persons with disabilities has to be computed in the case of Group A, B, C and D posts in an identical manner: 3% on the total number of vacancies in the cadre strength and not on the total number of identified posts.”

Institutional apathy

Singh said the abysmal situation pertaining to recruitment of PwDs in Gujarat seems to be a nationwide phenomena, but in the case of the other states even the data was not available.

He had earlier highlighted that India was one of the first major countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007 whose Article 35 mandates that nations submit country reports on its effective implementation. But it took India 8 years to submit its first country report on its UNCRPD implementation. “The comprehensive report sadly lacks data to supplement the claims of the government.

According to the data available on the website of the social justice ministry, about 1.34 crores persons with disabilities are in the employable age bracket of 15-59 years and about 99 lakh persons with disabilities in this group are currently non-workers or marginal workers.

The site also states that “persons with disabilities are among the poorest in the population”, that they are in “urgent need to scale up the skill training infrastructure in view of the huge demand- supply gap”, and that “the training, being offered through various institutions / mechanisms is non-homogenous, lacks quality and is very low on employability”. Also, it points out that there is “very low access of the present training infrastructure to the PwDs in rural areas”.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, the government has been slow in acting on the matter. The lack of seriousness is visible in functioning of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under the social justice ministry, which has not even bothered to update the information listed under ’employment generation’ on its site since January 2015, when it was supposedly updated. However, the page is still blank.

When it comes to the Office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, its site mentions various posts that are suitable for PwDs. It also provides a list of jobs that are deemed ideal for PwDs.

However, as Singh said, there have been several violations of the guidelines and both the department and the Office of the Chief Commissioner are equally guilty. “I had filed RTI applications to get the status of employments of PwDs with various government departments but none of the states provided the data. Moreover, neither the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities nor the Office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, which play a key role in the welfare of the PwDs have appointed people from the category in key positions.”

To add to it, he said, of the seven national institutes across the country there is only one, National Institute for the Visually Handicapped, which has a director which is a PwD as she is visually impaired. “In no other national institute do we have a PwD in a high post”.

Divyang‘ doesn’t cut it

Another issue which has irked many PwDs is the coining of the new term ‘divyang’ for them. While they have been resisting its use, Modi on the occasion of his birthday again used it for describing them as people with “special powers”. Disability rights activists have objected to this usage as well.

Abha Khetarpal, president of the NGO, Cross the Hurdles and counsellor for students with disabilities at UCMS and GTB Hospital, said about a picture showing PwDs at an event in Gujarat: “This picture is symbolic of the real treatment given to 10% to 15% of population of our country…i.e. persons with disabilities…all ‘flocked’ together, wrapped up under the sheath of ‘special privileges’ of state cover…neutralising their individual identities…negating their dignities, encroaching upon the right of being treated as individual humans who could hold their heads high in self esteem.”

Objecting to their being “labelled up as ‘divyang’ or ‘super humans’ for their being alive”, she said “for me treating the living entities in bulk and lumping them together, completely ignoring their individual selves just to make world records is an inhuman thing to do”.

Singh also added for good measure that what the PwDs actually need is affirmative action and not just mouthing of platitudes and tokenism. “We should remember that scheduled castes had also resisted the coining of the term harijan for them by Gandhiji. It did nothing to help their cause.” And many among them felt, as many PwDs do now, that the word was a condescending term for them.