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Incentives for inclusion

By Lalitha Sridhar

At least 7 million disabled Indians are waiting for a job. But only 0.4% of employees in India's top 100 corporate houses are disabled. India's first Draft Incentives Policy for the Disabled has just been presented to the government. It demands serious attention from the public and private sectors to the question of incentives and subsidies for the support and employment of the disabled

A host of NGOs, senior bureaucrats, representatives from industrial associations and chambers, financial and corporate taxation experts and mediapersons recently congregated for the first time in order to present a Draft Incentives Policy for the Disabled to the Government of India. Key organisations and activists from the disability sector have come together to place the pioneering document before the government, in time to lobby for its adoption by the Union Budget of 2004-2005.

To prepare the ground, two critical research studies were commissioned. Firstly, incentive policies in select European countries to promote the employment of disabled people were analysed. Secondly, existing incentive policies in the Indian corporate sector promoting social and economic causes other than disability were studied.

While 5-6% of India's population is disabled, less than 1% of children with disability receive education of any kind. Even though the first Special Employment Exchange (SEE) for the physically disabled was established in Mumbai in 1959, and in 1977 the Government of India reserved 3% of vacancies in identified jobs in government and the public sector, since the setting up of the first SEE more than 40 years ago, only about 1,00,000 disabled persons have been employed.

Says Javed Abidi, Director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), the leading advocacy group credited with moving a recalcitrant government to include disability in the 2001 Census, "There has been a sustained and overall neglect of the needs of disabled people in India."

This Incentives Policy initiative is being spearheaded by the three Disability Legislation Units set up in Chennai, Mumbai and Guwahati by the NCPEDP, which also oversees the National Disability Network to advocate better employment, awareness, legislation, education and access for disabled people.

Asks Rajul Padmanabhan, Deputy Director of Vidya Sagar (formerly the Spastics Society of India, Chennai), "When tax benefits can be given for exports, for infrastructure, for setting up new units in backward areas etc, why can tax benefit not be given for employment of persons with disability? According to the Persons with Disability Act, 1995, the government should give incentives to employees both in public and private sectors to ensure that at least 5% of their workforce is composed of persons with disabilities. But the implementation of this well-intentioned piece of legislation leaves much to be desired."

Weighted deduction is allowed for employment-generation and scientific research, subsidies are given to sugar, fertiliser, horticulture and plantations -- but not for employment of disabled persons. Rebates on interest on loans, various subsidies, duty exemptions, reservations in land allotment and waiver of charges like electricity are other areas where disabled people can benefit from incentives, recommend the studies.

In developed countries, disability is tied to the longevity of the population. In the EU, for example, the vast majority of disabilities have been acquired in middle or old age -- 63% of people with disabilities are aged 45 or more; almost 40% of them are age 55 or older. In India, on the other hand, one in every 10 children is disabled. Nevertheless, some problems appear to be universal. As many as 52% of people with disabilities are economically inactive in the EU, as compared with only 28% of non-disabled people.

Activists believe it is necessary to understand established models that can be replicated in India. Unlike many people in developing and transition countries, the majority of workers in Europe are engaged in formal employment. Benefit systems involve major investments in funds and manpower of the kind hardly available in India.

There are important lessons we can learn from Europe. For example, even though Denmark does not define what constitutes the disabled population, it focuses on compensation for individual needs. Persons with disabilities have access to a large number of measures to support them in the event of unemployment and to encourage them to re-enter the job market. Disability counsellors are assigned to each regional employment agency in an effort to better match disabled individuals with jobs in the open labour market via guidance, training and recruitment.

The Dutch concept of Flexjobs allows for 33, 50 or 67% subsidy of wages in the event of a disabled employee taking leave from work. This not only encourages workers to undertake continued education or rest, if necessary, but provides temporary employment for (disabled) substitutes. The subsidies are provided by the State to multiply jobs of this nature rather than put jobseekers on disability pension.

‘ Lenient jobs' is another supplementary employment scheme: a disabled person with 33% working ability, for example, receives 1/3 of the minimum wage. Under the Icebreaker scheme, an employer hiring a person with severe disability can get the person's wage paid for during the first 6-9 months. Overall, the report says, the emphasis is on mainstreaming and that is what we need to emulate.

In India, the Persons with Disabilities Act has completely left out the private sector. Experts ask that when taxes and other laws are uniformly applicable to all businesses, why not disability incentives and reservations?

But, says Ravi Shankar, Vice-President of Flash Support, an organisation that hires disabled people, "I don't mean to demean incentives but the disability sector can and should identify areas where their services are most suited and become available for them in a proactive way. Industries in recession will not appreciate carrot-and-stick policies. Companies in the IT (Information Technology), telemarketing and BPO (Business Process Operations) sectors are particularly suited for employing disabled persons. Many offer work-from-home options. A particular strength of the disabled is that they are loyal employees." The IT industry has attrition (turnover of personnel) rates of 30-40%, a problematic issue for corporates.

Adds Anuradha Parakkat, Director of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), "Corporates will be more interested in those who can deliver. One good disabled recruit makes a far better impact than any number of policies."

Countered Poonam Natarajan, Director of Vidya Sagar, "We all know about recession but let not the disabled be the last in the queue. I wouldn't aspire to be a singer because I cannot sing. Similiarly, the fact that we have to match our ability to the available job opportunities is true for all of us -- not just the disabled. Also, if somebody gives me an opportunity, I can find ways and means of doing what is required of me."

An example can be found in Varada Kutti, a chartered accountant who was rejected when he applied for a job as a clerk by the State Bank of India, and now runs a firm that audits some of their branches.

Activists express concern that persons with mild disability are being neglected. Also, the vast population of the rural disabled do not have access to technology and jobs that involve its application.

The government's policy of categorising disabled people draws criticism too. Says Padmanabhan, "A person with cerebral palsy cannot be slotted into particular options and slotted into ‘can do' or ‘cannot do' generalisations. It doesn't work like that at all. The abilities of disabled individuals -- even within victims of cerebral palsy -- are often unique. Individualising is happening at NGO levels anyway. Incentives provide a larger, broader access."

The next generation of corporate managers can be sensitised by introducing disabilities as a section in human resource management studies. Two things are necessary: shift focus to employability of the disabled and, at the same time, provide industry with incentives to hire them.

Says Giridhar, wheelchair-bound advocate with the Forum for Just Law, "Percentages mean nothing! Three per cent of 20 posts? Disabled people fall out of the net because the number is not even tangible. An absolute number of positions is what is required, with options of either that number or a certain percentage, whichever is lower perhaps. As a disabled person, I even have to pay a higher insurance premium!"

Recommends Prakash Kuruvilla, Regional Head of HSBC (the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), "The Apprentices Act can be explored and amended to include the disabled too. There is tremendous demand for people who can be hired with no strings attached. Many companies file ‘nil' returns in the Compulsory Notification of Vacancies Act because they are afraid of the kind of pressure employment exchanges will exert on them. Headhunters assume we won't be interested in the disabled but many who join as apprentices prove themselves very well. We have to accept the reality that with outsourcing, very few permanent jobs are coming out."

A 1999 study of 100 ‘top' corporate houses in India showed that the average percentage of employees with disabilities is a dismal 0.4%. The National Sample Survey of 1991 (results last available) itself said that there are 7 million employable disabled people waiting to get a job. If the Draft Incentives recommendations are accepted in whole, or part, by the government, some urgently needed difference could be made.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2003