Vol. XLIII No. 14 April 07, 2019
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Disabled Rally for Passage of Rights Bill

Muralidharan

BHEEM from Purulia was rendering a self-composed song in his native dialect. He was narrating the experiences of disabled people like him for whom every day brought in new challenges and struggles. The disabled folk singer was one of the few who could make it to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on December 3 from West Bengal. The rest of the Bengal contingent, nearing a thousand, thanks to inclement weather and consequent disruption of rail services were either stranded midway or had to abandon their journey even before they could commence it. Participants from a few other states also could not reach in time. But despite the depletion in the turnout with the weather playing spoilsport, hundreds did turn up. They turned up in strength, with full zeal and enthusiasm, determined to weather many a storm.

Since 1992, the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities has been celebrated annually on December 3. This year too there were  celebrations world wide. But the mood at Jantar Mantar, however, was mixed. There was elation that just the day earlier, on December 2, the government had introduced amendments to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill (RPD Bill) in the Rajya Sabha and had listed the bill for consideration and passage. Some of the concerns that several disability rights organisations including the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) had raised with regard to the bill as well as the recommendations contained in the standing committee which scrutinized the bill, were sought to be addressed. However, certain inadequacies and concerns still remained. Therefore, while there was joy that after a prolonged campaign and wait of nearly three years there has been some mobility with regard to the bill, we could not claim an outright victory.

This cautious optimism was also reflected in the huge backdrop on the stage. The backdrop with photographs from last year’s massive mobilisation had just one line written on it “Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill?” The question mark is significant as clarity was yet to be established and what stand each individual participating organisation would take with regard to the amendments also was also not clear till then.

Ever since the parliamentary standing committee submitted its report in May 2015, disability rights organisations have been demanding that the government come forward with amendments taking into consideration both the concerns expressed by them as well as taking into account the standing committee’s recommendations. As the government seemed to be dragging its feet, the NPRD along with a few other disability rights organisations gave a call for a march to parliament on December 3, 2015. The huge turnout surprised even the organisers. But the government did not seem to be relenting.

The NPRD executive committee at its meeting in August this year therefore decided to intensify the movement for amending and passing the bill. In the first phase of the campaign a countrywide signature campaign was conducted in which lakhs of signatures were collected. In the second phase, members of parliament from the respective states were approached asking them to raise the issue both with the government and inside parliament. It was also decided to have mobilisations in state capitals in the month of November. It was the culmination of this campaign that the rally was planned in Delhi on December 3, 2016.

Carrying forward the understanding of the NPRD EC to forge the broadest possible unity around this issue, a meeting of several national disability rights organisations was held in Delhi on November 5. This meeting gave a call for state wide demonstrations on November 21 followed by a huge mobilisation in Delhi on December 3 demanding that the government come forward with an action taken report as a follow up to the recommendations made by the parliamentary standing committee.

For the first time, fourteen national level disability rights organisations had come together to jointly fight on an issue. Though the deaf, the blind and people with locomotor disabilities have been part of the disability movement, it is for the first time that organisations representing the leprosy affected or those with psychosocial disabilities were part of such a united movement at the national level.

The sustained campaign and pressure exerted from various quarters finally yielded results when the union cabinet at its meeting held on November 30 approved 119 amendments to the bill, which were tabled on December 2.

The bill, introduced in February 2014, will replace the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, consequent to India signing and ratifying the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007.

One of the major amendments concerns bringing private entities within the purview of the definition of “establishment”. This has wide implications, one being that even private establishments would now be legally bound to make their premises physically accessible, among other things. Another glaring inadequacy in the bill was a definition of “discrimination”, which has now been introduced as an official amendment. The definition with regard to communication has been changed to include “sign language” as well as video and visual displays.

Another important amendment is the strengthening of specific provisions for women and children with disabilities. An official amendment was also introduced to provide for legal capacity to persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, though it reads contrary to the provision for guardianship.

These amendments, therefore, were welcomed by many of the speakers, as they addressed some of the major concerns expressed by several disability rights organisations including the NPRD. However, there remain certain concerns which have not been addressed at all or have been addressed inadequately. Speaker after speaker, therefore, while congratulating the participants cautioned that the battle is only half won.

Many speakers at the rally gave vent to one of the major concerns that disability rights organisations had with regard to the bill, which pertained to Clause 3(3) of the bill. The clause states that “No person with disability shall be discriminated on the ground of disability, unless it is shown that the impugned act or omission is appropriate to achieve a legitimate aim.” This proviso of “unless it is shown that the impugned act or omission is appropriate to achieve a legitimate aim” speakers from different organisations pointed out was unacceptable as it gives unfettered power to the implementing authorities to discriminate against persons with disabilities, on the pretext of serving a “legitimate aim”. The official amendment proposed to this section, which replaces “appropriate to achieve a legitimate aim” with “a proportionate means of achieving” does not alter the provision in any substantive manner, they added.

Another provision that came in for sharp criticism was with regard to reservations in employment in the government sector. Leaders of different organisations came down heavily on the government for reducing the percentage of reservation to four percent from the five percent that was proposed in the bill. The existing Act provides for three percent reservation for seven disabilities. The bill brings within its ambit 21 disabilities. The provision of a mere four percent therefore was felt inadequate, especially when for the disabled the sole avenue for employment was the government sector.

There was also genuine apprehension about the misinterpretation of the proviso “meant to be filled with persons with benchmark disabilities”. Reservations for the disabled are only in posts identified for them. The provision in the 1995 Act of reservation against identified posts was misinterpreted to read as though the three percent reservation was restricted to identified posts only and not the total cadre strength. Speakers therefore felt that the proviso “meant to be filled with persons with benchmark disabilities” should be deleted.

Taking all these concerns into consideration a delegation consisting of Kanti Ganguly, general secretary of the NPRD, S K Rungta, general secretary of NFB and Seema Baquer of Leprosy Mission Trust met the minister for social justice and empowerment, Thawar Chand Ghelot during the course of the rally and submitted a memorandum to him. CPI(M) MPs Sitaram Yechury, K K Ragesh and C P Narayanan have also moved amendments seeking to rectify the inadequacies.

 

Victory of Sustained Campaign

IN a press statement issued on December 14, 2016, the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) has noted that after a long and excruciating wait for nearly three years after its introduction in the Rajya Sabha, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill has finally been passed.

NPRD thanked all disabled persons in the country and their organisations who had participated in the sustained campaign that it and the All India Disability Alliance (AIDA) had conducted along with various other organisations demanding that the government come forward with amendments and place the bill for consideration and passage in this session of parliament.

It hoped that the bill will be discussed and passed in the Lok Sabha in the remaining two days of this session itself. It also hoped that  the concerns that have not been addressed adequately in the bill will be taken care of while framing the rules.