Sunday, December 20, 2009


In my 17 years of being what people call a ‘disabled activist’, one thing I have never known to have faced is a loss for words. But like they say, there’s always a first time. The other day, a friend asked me “Aren’t you tired of doing what you do?”. I was taken aback, perhaps a bit annoyed. After all, even I take myself so much for granted!

I smiled and kept quiet, but as the evening wore on, the question had gripped me. It kept coming back at me. “Am I tired?” I asked myself. Not sure if I wanted a confrontation with my own self, I tried to put the question away. By nightfall, it was haunting me!

Left with no choice, I began to reflect. 17 years of by & large the same work. Advocacy, bordering on activism. Education, Employment and Access. Press Conferences, Rallies, even Dharnas. An eternal optimist and yet, a certified ‘confrontationist’. The enfant terrible of the Indian disability sector, constantly in someone’s crosshair, good at turning friends into foes, and yet not bad at ‘converting’ opponents into allies!

Same work. Same accusations. Even, the same gossip! Am I not tired?

The truth is that I am tired. Very tired. Who wouldn’t be? Repeatedly reminding India of our existence, that we are at least 70 million, that disabled Indians have rights too, that damn it we are as much citizens of this Nation as the other non-disabled are!

But then, there is another truth! And that truth (the inner voice) says this: “I am tired, but I have to go on...”


Tomorrow, 3rd December, is World Disability Day (WDD). We have been celebrating it at India Gate for 12 years. There are times when it almost feels like an annual ritual. An annual event that has to be organised, because tradition demands so. Then, at other times, it feels like an upcoming major festival! A senior colleague had once said that WDD for disabled people is like Eid, Holi, Diwali and Christmas, all rolled into one. It is that one day that we all look forward to.

We look forward to this one day, because it is only this one day that India remembers us! Government, politicians, media, civil society, all suddenly get a collective jolt to realise that there are some 70 million disabled Indians amongst them. Functions are organised, events held, charity abound, posters printed, announcements made, celebrities paraded, spots telecast, promises, promises and ofcourse, that many more promises!!

Promises are made only to be broken. Worst, forgotten. And the whole charade is then repeated 364 days later on ‘another’ World Disability Day.


In 2005, the then HRD Minister announced a ‘Comprehensive Action Plan for Inclusive Education’ in Parliament. The following statements were made: It will be our objective to make mainstream education not just available but accessible, affordable and appropriate for students with disabilities. All the schools in the country will be made disabled-friendly by 2020 and all educational institutions including hostels, libraries, labs and buildings will have barrier free access. All universities will have a Disability Coordinator. University Grants Commission will assist all universities to establish a separate Department of Disability Studies. Talking text books, reading machines, computers with speech software, sign language interpreters, transcription services…

All the above statements, I have quoted verbatim from the Minister’s speech. Not an off the cuff speech, carried away by emotions, at some Spastics Society, say in Mumbai! This speech was made inside the Parliament, the so-called Temple of our Democracy.

It will soon be 5 years since this otherwise well intentioned speech was made. And it doesn’t give me any happiness to say that not even a half-hearted beginning has been made. Making ‘all the schools’ in the country disabled-friendly is a tall order, but how much does it take to ensure that ALL universities appoint a disability coordinator? Four union budgets have since been presented. Has even a paisa been allocated to ensure that our hostels, our libraries and our labs become barrier-free??


The Disability Act was enacted on 7th February, 1996. Section 41 mandates ‘incentives’ for the private sector to motivate them to give jobs to people with disabilities. Dream target: 5% of the workforce!

In 1999, NCPEDP conducted a Corporate Research Study on the so-called ‘Top 100’ companies operating in India, a few them being MNCs. As many as 70 responded. Average rate of employment of disabled people was a mere 0.4%. While this was the overall average, private sector was at 0.2%, while MNCs were at 0.05%.

Yet, no incentives were ever announced. It took a decade for the government to wake up from its slumber! Finally, in the 2007 budget, Mr. P. Chidambaram did announce a scheme on paper, but even there the ‘incentives’ are so miniscule that no corporate seems to be interested. Not even SMEs. Against the 100,000 jobs that were promised every year, only 261 have resulted in the almost two years that have gone by. Yes, you can pinch yourself please. The figures are indeed that astonishing!


The least said the better. The law categorically says that all public buildings and transportation will be made disabled-friendly. The law was passed by Parliament in 1995, enacted in 1996. It has been 13 years and more. Forget making the existing infrastructure accessible, not even what is being newly constructed is disabled-friendly. From the fancy NDMC toilets to the reception at the Supreme Court, or the brand new airport in Bangalore, by and large nothing is ‘accessible’. A wheelchair user girl gets admission on merit at a well known law college in Pune and is then denied education, only because the girls hostel was not conducive to her needs. The law is there, complaints are made against the college but no action is taken. The girl is heart broken, the family distraught. She gives up on her dream to be a lawyer. Forever.

And this is the bitter reality in the otherwise 21st Century, modern, nuclear age India, where the present Union Urban Development Minister himself happens to be an orthopaedically impaired person.


Tomorrow, under the clear blue sky, thousands of disabled people will gather yet once again at India Gate. The sun should shine. Disability colours of blue and yellow will reflect and spread cheer. Some, like me, may cry. Others will ofcourse sing and dance and look forward to a better day.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

It's time to 'Act'!

With every changing Minister, the favourite task of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment seems to be ‘amending’ The Disability Act 1995. This time around too, the draft amendments are making their appearance. I wonder if this will be the final ‘act’ in this never ending saga!

The Indian disability sector is abuzz and our Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (M.S.J.E.) is certainly gung - ho about the possibility of ‘amending’ The Disability Act of 1995. This is the third time that M.S.J.E. is going overboard about this whole exercise and also, the third time that the disability sector’s so - called leadership, especially the ‘pro - government’ camp are over excited as if some mega circus is about to unfold! I urge caution. A hefty, undiluted dose of caution.

As far as I am concerned, the ‘Act’ is unamendable! It has run its time. It is archaic. It is over 13 years old. It was framed in the very early days of our Movement. Even the disability sector’s own understanding of what is now called ‘a rights based approach’ was way too nascent. It served its purpose at that time. It gave us and the Nation a firm foundation and a good beginning. It is time now to move on.

When I and several other senior colleagues from the Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) met the Minister on August 29, I said to him in a lighter vein that when a car gets dented, you repair it. If it gets two dents or even five, you still get it repaired. But what if the car is totally damaged and dented from all sides, in every which way?! Mukul Wasnik understood my point and in good spirit responded, “Haan, iska toh engine hi baith gaya hai!!”

Getting serious, he elaborated that even he felt concerned at the number of amendments that were being proposed by the overzealous M.S.J.E. bureaucrats. “Over hundred,” he disclosed!
It was then, that we brought to his attention the flaws, substantial ones, that still existed in the so - called ‘Amendments’ document being floated around by the Ministry. In a chart form, we drew his attention to atleast 18 significant articles of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (U.N.C.R.P.D.) that were left out.

We then proposed that what India needs now, rather what the 70 million disabled people of India need now is a brand new, modern, forward looking, 21st century law! We even proposed a name!! The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Respect for Dignity, Effective Participation and Inclusive Opportunities) Act, 2009!!!

We expected him to say a Big No. The gossip mongers of the disability sector had spread this rumour that the Minister was in a big hurry and he would rush the Amendments Bill to Parliament during this, upcoming Winter Session itself, etc. etc.

From what I saw that day, Mukul Wasnik seemed to listen carefully. He participated in the discussion intently, even debated a few points with our delegation. Most importantly, he was pretty calm and willing to consider our point of view. He then disclosed that (a) that he was in no hurry, (b) that he wanted to consult more, (c) that he will ensure that the process of consultation will remain open till December this year, and (d) that based on the inputs/feedback received, he will make up his mind as to whether he should go ahead with an Amendments Bill or a fresh piece of legislation.

This was music to our ears and we told him so. We also offered our services, pro - bono, to his Ministry and our undiluted cooperation in the drafting of the new law.
We reiterated our position and I state it here, one more time. We at N.C.P.E.D.P. and D.R.G. are totally opposed to the idea of Amendments. In the days, weeks and months ahead, we will work tirelessly and advocate passionately for the idea of a new law, a new vision, a fresh foundation firmly based on the principles enshrined in U.N.C.R.P.D.

We don’t know what the Ministry is up to! We haven’t heard from them since our August 29 meeting. At the recent Annual Conference of State Ministers of Welfare/Social Justice, held on September 7, Mukul Wasnik stated that they have “initiated the process to amend the Act”. To hear this was disappointing. However, we will not rush into any conclusion. And certainly, we will not rush into any kind of an unwarranted confrontation!

An Urdu poet very aptly stated this, “Unka farz hai, ahley siyasat jaane; mera paigham mohabbat hai, jahan tak pahunche!” Rough translation: It is their responsibility, let politicians decide; my job is to create awareness, as far as it can spread.

This is what we have done so far: (1) D.R.G. has constituted a Core Group, which has already met eleven times, quietly, in Delhi. (2) We have formulated our position and given it to the Minister. Copies have been sent to Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh. (3) Drafting of the new law has started and a few key chapters have already been written. Very soon, they will be unveiled to all concerned, especially to the disability sector. Dr. Achal Bhagat, G. Syamala, Vandana Bedi, Dr. Shanti Auluck, Radhika Alkazi and A.S. Narayanan have played and are playing a lead role. (4) N.C.P.E.D.P. has now set up a national level ‘Core Group on Disability Act 2009’. It includes all the key people from Delhi who have played a crucial role so far and laid a firm foundation for this entire process. Plus it will have leading disabled activists and N.G.O. leaders from across the Nation.

This is what we plan to do in the near future: (1) Lead the debate on ‘Amendments’ versus ‘New Law’. (2) Draft the new legislation in an open, transparent and participative way. (3) Put the chapters out for debate, discussion, feedback or criticism, as they get drafted. (4) Hold a national level Consultation on ‘Disability Act 2009’ in New Delhi on October 29. (5) Organise four Zonal Meetings across India (North, South, East and West) in the next few months to ensure that the mood and the voice of as many disabled people, activists, N.G.O. leaders, and just about everyone is heard and captured. (6) Present the draft “Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Respect for Dignity, Effective Participation and Inclusive Opportunities) Act, 2009” to the Government by the end of this year or very early next year. (7) Lead an intense advocacy drive across the Nation to lobby in favour of the new law. (8) Try, very very hard, to ensure its passage and enactment by next year.

As I have always said and maintained, no one single individual or organization or even a group of people can implement a task of this mammoth a proportion by herself or himself or themselves. All of us, each one of you, irrespective of whether you are disabled or not, or what your disability is; irrespective of whether you are from within the disability sector or from any other segment of society (as long you are a well wisher and an ally!); irrespective of which part of India you belong to or what your political ideology is; EACH ONE OF US must now take part in this discussion, debate, dialogue and discourse. And as far as possible, not merely ‘take part’ but LEAD the 4D process in every nook and corner of India.

The World Disability Day is less than three months away. Let this be our theme song for this year! Let me quote from the letter we gave to Mukul Wasnik, “We see this point of time as a watershed in the disability rights movement”.

Let’s read. Let’s think. Let’s talk.

We can’t be a mute spectator to a process which will define our future for the next 10, who knows 20, 25 or more years. We can’t leave it to the Babus of M.S.J.E., who think they know it all! We have to take control. We must take control. And LEAD. Yes, indeed, it is time for us to ‘Act’.