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National Policy for the Disabled: No clear roadmap for action

By Deepanjali Bhas

Does the National Policy for Persons with Disability announced in February 2006 indicate a withdrawal of the State from its responsibility towards the disabled and a tendency to thrust that responsibility on civil society and communities?

Persons with disability (PWD) have been blocked out of our everyday reality, touching only those who are caregivers. Census 2001 says PWD constitute 2.13% of the total population, but conservative estimates place Indians with disability at between 5-6% of the total population. This translates to 6 crore people, including persons with visual, hearing, speech, locomotor and mental disabilities. Seventy-five per cent of people with disabilities live in rural areas, only 49% of this population is literate and only 34% employed. Women make up 42.46% of the total population of persons with disability.

The Centre's late recognition of the rights of PWD is depressing. The first legislation in this regard -- the Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, which provides for education, employment, creation of a barrier-free environment, social security etc, was enacted as late as 1995. In the 10 years since, this too has met with very little success even in matters as basic as ensuring a barrier-free environment and generating employment.

The National Policy for Persons with Disability, announced in February 2006, attempts to clarify the framework under which the state, civil society and private sector must operate in order to ensure a dignified life for persons with disability and support for their caregivers.

The National Policy for Persons with Disability includes:

  • Extending rehabilitation services to rural areas
  • Increasing trained personnel to meet needs
  • Emphasising education and training
  • Increasing employment opportunities
  • Focusing on gender equality
  • Improving access to public services
  • Encouraging state governments to develop a comprehensive social security policy
  • Ensuring equal opportunities in sports, recreation and cultural activities
  • Increasing the role of civil society organisations as service-providers to persons with disability and their families.

The policy recognises the need to replace the earlier emphasis on medical rehabilitation with an emphasis on social rehabilitation. Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) is seen as an effective means of rehabilitation, and the policy states that CBR will be encouraged.

Like any policy statement, this one too outlines the direction that interventions for persons with disability must take. But there is no clear roadmap, or even list of priorities, on how this is to be implemented on the ground. A Ministry of Social Welfare official, who did not want to be named, said no national policy ever gives a timeline, as it only presents an approach to be followed under which programmes are drawn up, normally over a five-year period. State draft policies for PWD have so far only been drawn up by Gujarat and Jharkhand. The national policy will inform the disability plan to be incorporated in the 11th Five-Year Plan, which will have a timeline, and funds for programmes can be allocated through the Finance Commission.

However, according to Javed Abidi, executive director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People (NCPEDP), the entire preparation process of the National Policy for Persons with Disability was a sham -- no significant attempts were made to circulate the draft among PWD and NGOs for their comments, in 2005. This was unlike the successful consultative process adopted prior to finalising the 1995 PWD Act.

Salient features of the policy

Addressing rural needs
The policy recognises that, at present, rehabilitation services are largely available in and around urban areas, with no coverage of a large majority of persons with disability in rural areas. Hence, it states that services run by professionals will be extended to cover uncovered and unserved areas. Further, new District Disability Rehabilitation Centres (DDRCs) will be set up with support from state governments. The availability of devices ( prostheses and orthoses, tricycles, wheelchairs, surgical footwear and devices for everyday activities, learning equipment like Braille writing machines, dictaphones, CD players/tape recorders, low-vision aids, special mobility aids like canes for the blind, hearing aids, educational kits) will be expanded to cover uncovered and under-serviced areas.

Human resources
The policy addresses the lack of availability of trained manpower in rehabilitation, and states that human resource requirements for the rehabilitation of persons with disability will be assessed and development plans prepared so that rehabilitation strategies do not suffer lack of manpower.

Emphasis on inclusive education
With 51% of persons with disability being illiterate, the policy rightly emphasises inclusive education at the primary school level, and vocational training courses.

Disability India's website quotes 'inclusion' as an educational philosophy aimed at 'normalising' special services for which students qualify. Inclusion involves an attempt to provide more of these special services by providing additional aids and support inside the regular classroom, rather than by pulling students out for isolated instruction. Inclusion involves the extension of general education curricula and goals to students receiving special services. Finally, inclusion involves shared responsibility, problem-solving and mutual support among all staff members who provide services to students (www.disabilityindia.org).

Importance of the service sector and self-employment
On reservation in government employment (3% in government undertakings and PSUs in identified posts), the policy states that the list of identified posts, notified in 2001, will be reviewed and updated. It also recognises the growing importance of the service sector and the potential for employment of persons with disability, for which incentives like tax exemptions and awards to the private sector will be considered.

Self-employment too has been emphasised since it is most often the avenue of choice for persons with disability. The existing system of providing soft loans through the National Handicapped and Finance Development Corporation will be improved to make it easily accessible, with transparent and efficient processing procedures. The government will also encourage self-employment by providing incentives, tax concessions, exemption from duties, preferential treatment for the procurement of goods and services by the government from the enterprises of persons with disability, etc. Priority in financial support will be given to self-help groups formed by persons with disability.

Emphasis on employment training for women with disability
With 93.01 lakh women with disability (42.46% of the total population of persons with disability), the policy states that programmes will be undertaken to rehabilitate abandoned women/girls with disability by encouraging their adoption in families, support for housing them and imparting training in gainful employment skills. The government will encourage projects where representation of women with disability is ensured at least to the extent of 25% of total beneficiaries.

Barrier-free environment
The policy also addresses one of the biggest obstacles persons with disability face in carrying on a normal life - an environment that prevents or hinders access to public spaces. It reiterates, as have previous notifications, that to the maximum extent possible, roads, highways, buildings/places/ transportation systems for public use should be made barrier-free.

Issue of disability certificates
The government has notified guidelines for the evaluation of disability; certification procedures will be simplified so that persons with disability are able to obtain disability certificates easily.

Social security -- tax relief and unemployment allowance
Given the additional expenses incurred by caregivers, the policy states that state governments will be encouraged to develop a comprehensive social security policy for PWD and their guardians. A system of regular review of tax relief policies granted to PWD will be put in place, and state governments will be encouraged to rationalise pension and unemployment allowances for PWD.

Sports, recreation and cultural activities
The policy recognises the importance of sports, recreation and cultural activities for PWD. It maintains that steps will be taken to ensure equal opportunities in this regard.

Promotion of non-governmental organisations
The policy stresses the importance of the NGO sector as a crucial institutional mechanism to provide affordable services to complement the efforts of the government. And the significant role NGOs have played in the provision of services for persons with disability. The policy states that interaction with NGOs will be enhanced on various disability issues regarding planning, policy formulation and implementation. Networking, exchange of information and sharing of good practices amongst NGOs will be encouraged and facilitated.

Collection of regular information on PWD and creation of a website
A comprehensive website for PWD will be created under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment; public and private sector organisations will be encouraged to make their websites accessible to the visually-impaired.

Responsibility for implementation
The policy lays down a roadmap for implementation:

  • The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment will be the nodal ministry coordinating all matters relating to policy implementation.
  • An inter-ministerial body will be set up to coordinate matters relating to implementation of the national policy. All stakeholders, including prominent NGOs, disabled peoples' organisations, advocacy groups and family associations of parents/guardians, experts and professionals will also be represented on this body. Similar arrangements will be encouraged at the state and districts levels. Panchayati raj institutions and urban local bodies will be associated with the functioning of District Disability Rehabilitation Centres' district-level committees to coordinate matters relating to implementation of the policy. Incidentally, the role of panchayati raj institutions has been highlighted in implementing the policy, to address local-level issues and draw up suitable programmes.
  • The ministries of home affairs, health and family welfare, rural development, urban development, youth affairs and sports, railways, science and technology, statistics and programme implementation, labour, panchayati raj, and the departments of elementary education and literacy, secondary and higher education, road transport and highways, public enterprises, revenue, women and child development, information technology and personnel and training will set up necessary mechanisms to implement the policy. Each ministry/department will evolve its own five-year perspective plan and annual plans setting targets and financial allocations. The annual reports of each ministry/department will indicate progress achieved during the year.
  • The chief commissioner for disabilities at the central level, and state commissioners at the state level, shall play a key role in implementing the national policy, apart from their statutory responsibilities.
  • Every five years, a comprehensive review will be carried out on implementation of the national policy. A document indicating status of implementation and a roadmap for five years will be prepared based on deliberations at a national convention. State governments and union territory administrations will be urged to take steps to draw up state policy and develop action plans.

Glaring insensitivity and inherent lacunae
A glaring example of insensitivity in the national policy is that the 'Responsibility for Implementation' section states that i nfrastructure created during the course of implementation must be maintained and effectively used for a long period. The policy adds: "The community should take a leading role in generating resources within themselves or through mobilisation from private sector organisations to maintain the infrastructure and also to meet running costs. This step will not only reduce the burden on state resources but will also create a greater sense of responsibility among the community and private entrepreneurs."

The meaning of "community" here includes public works departments, panchayati raj institutions and civil society organisations, a ministry official clarified. He added that it was not as though the government was withdrawing from its responsibilities, it was only trying to create a sense of ownership among the community.

It would appear as if the state were absolving itself of its major duty and responsibility, placing the onus of generating resources on the community itself. This is unfair. The Indian State and its people have a responsibility towards persons with disability that they cannot ignore.

Further, the absence of accurate data on the actual number of PWD, the extent of their disability and their requirements is a huge constraint. Co llection of information on persons with disability through the census began only with Census 2001. Though the policy states that the National Sample Survey Organisation will have to collect information on PWD at least once in five years, and differences in definitions adopted by the two agencies will be reconciled, the veracity of the actual data generated will have to be assessed.

The emphasis on self-employment too is almost an admission of failure in ensuring private and public sector employment, despite a 3% quota in the public sector (according to the PWD Act). The increased emphasis on self-employment poses the threat of further alienating PWD from mainstream society.

Finally, the biggest impediment in translating the national policy into achievable goals with a timeline is the plethora of ministries and departments; the nodal ministry itself seems more pre-occupied with issues related to scheduled castes and tribes.

What lies ahead...
As things stand, persons with disability encounter huge difficulties in interacting with government officials and making out applications. Although laws exist, they lack teeth. Very few organisations are penalised for not providing barrier-free environments. In fact, this basic requirement is seen more as a voluntary gesture -- if an organisation provides a ramp it's touted as a praiseworthy achievement. No one considers the fact that, according to the 1995 Persons with Disability Act, the provision is mandatory by law.

Besides, even government organisations have not managed to meet the 3% job reservations for persons with disability. Inclusive education too has largely been a failure: mainstream schools do not have facilities for children with disability thereby effectively excluding them from the first level of social interaction that would help towards developing a more sensitised and aware population.

In light of all this, it remains to be seen whether the National Policy for Persons with Disability 2006, that admittedly looks good on paper, will ever be effectively implemented on the ground. It is time for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to go full throttle and prepare a timeline for implementation of key deliverables, with departmental accountability. It's time now for some real action.

The text of the national policy is available at socialjustice.nic.in.

(Deepanjali Bhas is communication and media officer, Svaraj [formerly Oxfam India] and has been a journalist with The Times of India)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2006