A law on paper

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

More than six years after the enactment of the Disabilities Act, the prospects of the disabled getting better opportunities to improve their lot remain as dim as ever.

IN a society largely characterised by insensitivity to the problems of the disadvantaged sections, enactment of laws for their benefit amounts to not more than tokenism. No wonder, most of the 70 million disabled persons in India are yet to get the full benefits of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, even six years after its notification on February 7, 1996. It took a public interest petition filed in the Supreme Court to make air travel accessible and relatively smooth to the disabled. The more commonly used modes of public transport, such as buses and trains, continue to be disabled-unfriendly.

Protesting against the government's apathy in the matter, members of the Disability Rights Group (DRG), an umbrella organisation of disabled persons in the country, observed a day's fast in New Delhi on February 7. Among the organisations represented at the protest were Deepalaya, the Leprosy Mission Trust, the Spastics Society of Northern India, Swavalamban, the Delhi Association for the Deaf, the Blind Persons' Association, Disha, the Viklang Sahara Samity, the Delhi Deaf Friendship Club, and the National Thalassemia Welfare Society.

The problems of the disabled are highlighted in a 13-point charter of demands that was submitted to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Satyanarayan Jatiya. Among other things, it asks the government to raise the income tax exemption limit for disabled persons and their parents from Rs.40,000 to Rs.1 lakh; provide customs duty exemption for aids and appliances meant for the use of disabled people, such as wheelchairs and hearing aids; declare incentives for the private sector to increase employment opportunities for the disabled, as laid down in Section 41 of the Disabilities Act; extend to the mentally handicapped all facilities that are at present available to persons with orthopaedic, visual and aural handicaps (the mentally handicapped and their escorts are not entitled to bus fare concessions); and reserve 1 per cent of government jobs in the C and D categories for people with mental or developmental disabilities. The other demands relate to standardisation of the Indian sign language, revision of the job list, and passage of an ordinance to ensure barrier-free design and access features in all future constructions.

Significantly, the charter of demands calls for changes in the structure of government institutions dealing with the needs and problems of the disabled. The DRG has asked for the removal of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities on the grounds of ineffective and inadequate performance and the shifting of the office of the CCPD from Noida (in Uttar Pradesh) to central Delhi. In fact it has demanded the abolition of the post of CCPD and its replacement by a body similar to the National Human Rights Commission. It has urged the government to amend the Disabilities Act as per suggestions made by a government committee two years ago.

Says Javed Abidi, convener of the DRG and executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP): "When the Bill was passed and the Act finally notified, all of us felt that finally things would improve. It is very hurting to see that nothing seems to be happening at any level. There is enough evidence to show that the Act has not been implemented to the desired degree."

The Central Coordination Committee (CCC) and the Central Executive Committee (CEC), which were mandated by the Act, had been set up by the government after much procrastination, Abidi said. He said these committees had not been convened according to the frequency specified by the Act. The CCC, a policymaking body comprised of Ministers, Members of Parliament and representatives from among the disabled, is supposed to meet once in six months. However, Abidi said, it had met only three times so far although the Act had been notified six years ago. Similarly, the CEC, which is supposed to meet at least once in three months, has met only six times. Abidi pointed out that the CEC should have met at least 22 times. This, according to him, showed "the lack of sincerity on the part of the government".

The situation is no better in the States and Union Territories. Of the 35 States and Union Territories, only 24 have set up State Coordination Committees and State Executive Committees.

A MORE serious problem, said Abidi, was the continued denial of the right to employment to the disabled. "The disabled are invisible because they are not economically empowered. Less than 1 per cent of disabled children receive education of any kind," he said. Only destitutes and beggars or the reasonably well-to-do among the disabled were visible to the people, Abidi pointed out. The majority of them were not seen in public owing largely to the lack of opportunities and because economic reasons or other conditions made it impossible for them to avail themselves of opportunities, he said.

In 1977, the government reserved 3 per cent of "identified jobs" in the C and D categories in the government and the public sector. However, only about a lakh of disabled people have been employed since the setting up of the Special Employment Exchange in 1951. According to the National Sample Survey of 1991, at least seven million employable disabled people were waiting for jobs. As many as 13 States and Union Territories do not have Special Employment Exchanges. An NCPEDP survey of the top hundred corporate houses in the country in 1999 revealed that disabled employees represented only 0.4 per cent of the workforce (0.54 per cent in the public sector, 0.28 per cent in the private sector and 0.05 per cent in multinational companies).

While the number of employed disabled people remained at less than 1 per cent of their total, the concept of "identified jobs" itself is questioned. Abidi said that a list of identified jobs had not been drawn up on the basis of the actual capacities and capabilities of disabled persons. The identification of posts is crucial because the law mandates 3 per cent reservation for the disabled only against "identified" posts. An expert committee was set up in 1998 to identify suitable posts for the disabled and update the list that was drawn up in 1986. This committee was reconstituted in July 1999, but it did not submit its report within the specified period of three months. Instead, it set up three sub-committees, which do not seem to have done anything substantive. Section 32(b) of the Disabilities Act stipulates that the list of posts identified should be reviewed and updated "at periodic intervals, not exceeding three years", taking into account the technological advances.

Even the revised list for Groups A, B, C and D, which was notified on May 31, 2001 by the government after much delay, did not do justice to the disabled. For instance, a person like Abidi, who comes under the category of BL (both legs affected) in the list, would not be considered suitable for posts such as archivist, administrative officer, audiologist, chemical engineer, civil engineer, editor, electrical engineer, information officer, operation officer, programmer, physician, public relations officer and research officer. In the Group B category, he cannot apply for the posts of copywriter, music teacher, publicity officer, research officer and even social worker. Only a small number of posts constitute the "identified" category. The options narrowed down further with the arbitrary categorisation of identified and non-identified posts.

Several public sector undertakings have failed to fill posts reserved for the disabled. The private sector's record is worse. The Disabilities Act lays down that governments and local authorities would, within the limits of their economic capacity, provide incentives to employers in public and private sectors to ensure that at least 5 per cent of their workforce is composed of persons with disabilities. Its scope was fairly broad and it covered aspects relating to the education and employment of the disabled in all categories of government jobs. The statement of objects provided for vocational training, reservation of identified posts, research and manpower development and establishment of homes for persons with severe disabilities.

That much depends on the government's will is proved by the Chinese experience. China has about 1,600 welfare factories, where more than 40 per cent of the workforce comprises disabled people. Japan too has made similar strides by fixing a quota of jobs for the disabled in all government and private enterprises, according to Abidi.

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