People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 43

October 25, 2009

Right to a Dignified Life





IN a significant development, Party comrades working in the disability sector held a meeting on October 13, 2009 in New Delhi. The meeting was convened by the Party Centre to discuss on the follow-up to the 19th Party Congress decision to take forward the rights and needs of persons with different categories of disabilities. Representatives from seven states where such work has progressed attended the meeting. They included West Bengal, Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Tripura. From the Polit Bureau, Brinda Karat attended the meeting.


Although Left movements and workers have been involved with such work for decades in different spheres, the need for a concerted effort at the national level to coordinate the work and to intervene in national policy issues is an urgent necessity. Differently abled citizens have through self assertion and mobilisation played a key role in changing the framework of government policies from an approach based on charity and welfare to one based on the rights of the differently abled as equal citizens. While appreciating the big strides made in this respect, there are persisting gaps in government policies, in social approaches and also in the lack of mainstreaming of issues of the differently abled in policy agenda.


One of the crucial gaps relates to the lack of consultation between policy makers and those who are directly affected. This was recently seen when the Right to Education Act was adopted in parliament without any reference to the rights of differently abled children. It was only when the organisations of these sections mobilised on the issue that the government had to respond. It is also true that no political party raised the issues in the debate in parliament. Now the government has given an assurance that the section related to reservation of 25 per cent in private schools for disadvantaged sections will include disabled children.





It is a shocking revelation of the nature of the policies pursued by subsequent governments at the centre that 51 per cent of the disabled population is illiterate. As high as 63 per cent of them are unemployed.  Even the World Bank in a report titled People With Disabilities in India: From Commitments to Outcomes, has noted that people with disabilities are among the most excluded in Indian society. According to the report, they are subject to multiple deprivations. Households with disabled members are significantly poorer than average, with lower consumption and fewer assets. Children living with disability are around four to five times less likely to be in school than SC/ST children. Illiteracy is high across all categories of disability, particularly for children with visual, mental and multiple disabilities. Even when enrolled in school, they are not able to go beyond the primary stage.





Deprivation apart, even at the level of the assessment of the figures of the disabled there are differences. While the NSSO, 2002 says that persons with disabilities constitute only 1.8 per cent of the population, the 2001 census puts the figure at 2.13 per cent. But the government's own Eleventh Plan document disputes this figure and acknowledges that these are "under-estimates". It has pegged the figure to be anywhere between 5 to 6 per cent of the total population. The methodology itself is faulty. In both cases, the Census and the  NSS, disability is self-reported. The 'International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health' of the WHO is not followed to identify disabilities. This classification sees disability as a universal human experience and not a concern of a minority -- that every human being can suffer from a health loss and experience some disability. The data collected is on the basis of a definition very different from the definitions in the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995.  This the Eleventh Plan classifies as "a serious deficiency".


The Constitution of India enshrines equality, freedom, justice and dignity of all individuals and implicitly mandates an inclusive society for all, including persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, however, it was not until the disabled started asserting themselves that the government woke up to their problems. The approach of society, hitherto, has been one of sympathising with them. Successive governments adopted the "welfare" approach. It is now acknowledged that a majority of them can lead a better quality of life, if effective supportive mechanisms and equal opportunities are provided. Until now the responsibility for the "welfare" of such persons lay entirely with the families or charitable institutions or NGOs. But these too have been restricted to big cities and that too catering to the upper classes.


The advancement of disabled or differently abled citizens is crucially linked to the recognition of their rights as equal citizens, not as recipients of charity or as patronage.  Policies have also to recognise the different needs and requirements of disabled persons. It has to be a Rights based approach rather than a medical or charity based approach.





The increased assertion on the part of the disabled through their various associations and organisations brought about a positive change in the perception towards persons with disabilities. However, it was not untill 1995 that a legislation, The  Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, was enacted recognising their problems. The implementation, however, remains tardy.


India was one of the major countries to sign and ratify the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) that was entered into force in May 2008. The UN treaty emphasises that States are bound to treat persons with disabilities not just as victims or members of a minority, but as subjects of law with clearly defined rights. The treaty views disability as a result of the interaction between an inaccessible environment and a person rather than an inherent attribute of an individual. India is also a signatory to the Biwako Millennium Framework for action towards an inclusive, barrier free and rights based society.


Under mounting pressure from the disability sector the government has proposed to amend the Persons with Disability (PWD) Act of 1995 to align it with the UNCRPD. A total of 108 amendments have been proposed and the draft sent to the states for their response. Disability rights groups however point out that the amendments do not reflect a paradigm shift  envisaged in UNCRPD as it does not view disability as a form of human diversity. It fails to endorse the social model of disability and is not written in the rights based framework. The emphasis still remains to be that of �the medical model� and of conceptualising disability as a disorder. It does not take into account the barriers that persons with disability face everyday.


The conditions of women with disabilities is more worrisome. Women with disabilities are more vulnerable to exploitation. Reports of their sexual exploitation often appear in the press. Many of them are forced to remain spinsters or are married off to persons much older to them in age. Consequently, as the World Bank report points out, women with disabilities are four times more likely to get widowed than women without disabilities.






In the matter of education, although the central government has adopted a policy of �inclusive education�, no provision for infrastructural facilities or special training for teachers have been made thus weakening the programme. Whether it is the ICDS, the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, the allocation of funds, training of teachers etc, inclusion of sensitive teaching methodologies suitable for the specific disability the child may suffer from are absent. Moreover,  the work of teachers in special schools is unrecognised and since they are often in NGO-run schools, they are denied proper salaries. Many of these schools are entirely dependent on donations from philanthropists.




As for employment, the less said the better. Despite the PWD Act provisioning 3 per cent reservation in jobs in  all government and public sector units, its implementation leaves much to be desired. Even this 3 per cent is  calculated against identified jobs and not against the total strength of the cadre. Thus, even this inadequate 3 per cent is not implemented on the pretext of lack of suitable vacancies. The share of the disabled in employment against the total strength in actual terms is a negligible 0.44 per cent as against their estimated population of 5-6 per cent. Disabled rights advocacy groups point out that identification of jobs is "very restrictive", owing to which disabled people have been denied job opportunities despite possessing the requisite qualifications and skills.


Even in cases where the disabled cross all impediments, insensitivity of the administration creates hurdles. There are cases of disabled civil service aspirants getting absorbed only after groups advocating their rights took up the issue in a big manner and agitated.


In the case of employment in the private sector, the scenario is much worse. In a survey conducted by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for the Disabled People (NCPEDP) in "top 100 companies" in 1999, the rate of employment of the disabled was 0.28 per cent. The figure for the multinational companies was a dismal 0.05 per cent.


The central government had announced a scheme of providing one lakh jobs per annum to persons with disabilities, with a proposed outlay of Rs 1800 crore, during the Eleventh Plan, in the Union Budget 2006-07.  This was announced by the then finance minister, P  Chidambaran with much fanfare. Under the scheme, the government was to make payment of the employer's contribution of EMP and ESI for the first three years as an incentive for employing disabled persons. Six months later, Chidambaram himself had to admit that �not a single recruitment has been made" after the scheme was announced�!




Accessibility and a barrier free environment is a major issue for the disabled. Much of the public transport, buildings, schools, colleges, courts, shopping complexes, bus stops cinema halls etc. are out of bounds for the disabled. The existence of such barriers deprive them the right to education, employment, entertainment etc. These barriers are not just physical in nature. They are also attitudinal in nature. The disabled are subjected to the most cruel forms of humiliation day in and day out.


Identity Cards


This is not all. Possession of an Identify Card is a prerequisite to obtain any benefit under any state or central government scheme, financial institutions etc. Different departments demand different types of certificates. This forces the disabled to visit multiple offices and authorities. While different states adopt different methodologies  for the issuance of the identity cards, the commonality is the cumbersome process. In some states a certificate from a designated Medical Board has to be procured, on the basis of which the designated office issues the certificate. They have to travel long distances to appear before such boards. These boards also do not issue such certificates on a daily basis. Lack of competent doctors is another major constraint. Corruption only compounds the problem even further. The net result is that a major chunk of the disabled are deprived of the disability certificates and consequently the identity card. It is estimated that only 40 per cent of the disabled have been able to procure these cards so far.


Faced with such untold hardships, barriers, and humiliations the disabled sector is finding itself increasingly in conflict with the institutions of the State. Confronted with an unjust and unequal world, the disabled are getting more and more organised and their movement strengthened. The CPI(M) is committed to do its bit in advancing the movement of the disabled for their Right to a Dignified Life based on equality.