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The disabled protest government inaction

It is over a year since India ratified the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and there is no move to provide education, health and employment to people with disability, says Rajashri Dasgupta as a dharna and night-long vigil are staged in Delhi this World Disability Day

The jubilation has been short-lived. The excitement and enthusiasm that greeted the news that India had ratified the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the 11th Five-Year Plan which endorsed the ratification with important mandates, have given way to anger. More than a year has passed, and with World Disability Day celebrations slated for December 3, there is still no sign of the government fulfilling any of its promises.

To protest this inaction, people with disability and their relatives, friends, teachers and activists will stage a peaceful dharna at India Gate, Delhi, on December 3 and will continue the vigil throughout the winter night to shame a government that has failed to provide education, health and employment to people with disability. "These are basic but crucial issues," says Javed Abidi, convenor of Disabled Rights Group. "These are achievable goals and the government must take responsibility." The organisers expect to mobilise a few thousand people in the capital, while those physically unable to join will register their protest in a letter to the prime minister.

Among the demands are those policies enshrined in the 11th Five-Year Plan -- implementation of a clear plan of action on disability issues by the ministry and allocation of 3% of its resources to the disabled. "How long does it take for the system to wake up and understand that the Convention and the 11th Plan are not mere documents but policies that need to be actually carried out? Is a year not long enough to wait, watch and hope?" asks Abidi. The Plan's four-pronged approach includes the suggestion that the concerned departments not only formulate detailed rules and guidelines but also set up monitoring mechanisms at various levels and develop a review system.

For disability rights activists, this day is a grim reminder that empty promises offer little reason to celebrate. According to Census 2001, persons with disability constitute over 2% of the country's total population, which, activists say, is clearly an underestimate in a huge country like India. They point out that in South Asia itself, Bangladesh reported 5.6% and Sri Lanka reported 7.0% of disabled people among their respective total populations, while 6.3% of China's population has a disability of some kind. Worse for India is the fact that, according to a 2007 World Bank Report, barely 50% of disabled children reach adulthood; no more than 20% survive to middle age.

A serious deficiency in the census data is the adoption of a definition that varies from the definition in the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. "There is an urgent need to draw up proper definitions and a system of data collection relating to persons with disability," says Shampa Sengupta, director of Sruti Disability Rights Centre. Activists assume that even at a conservative level, persons with disability constitute anywhere between 5-6% of India's total population.

Every year, on World Disability Day, to show that it is working on the problem, the government felicitates a few disabled students who fare well in their exams, or a few employers who have given employment to people with disabilities. "What is the significance of felicitating 20 such students when only 1% of the disabled population has access to education? Disability is not an issue of charity -- disabled people have equal rights as non-disabled people," says Sengupta.

The insensitivity of the administration to the problem is evident everywhere. In response to several public interest litigations, the Supreme Court has directed that people with disability must be able to access public transport. But for a few exceptions like the Delhi Metro, which has made provision for people in wheelchairs and for the blind, bus, train and aeroplane services across the country remain indifferent to the special needs of disabled people. There are no ambu-lifts to assist the disabled in boarding aeroplanes, nor are trains equipped to allow wheelchairs through the narrow passages between seats and berths.

"It is very humiliating to have to carry my daughter in our public transport, eyed by curious onlookers," says Amitava Banerjee, 20-year-old Oishi's father, who got involved in the disability movement when his daughter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Banerjee has written a moving and thought-provoking book, I am a Special Girl on the protagonist Mouri's struggle with her body. But the book does not only list the charming and gutsy Mouri's triumphs and setbacks; it also deals with controversial and uncomfortable issues of sexuality that society refuses to acknowledge in young people with disability. "Our children are not criminals. Why then are they denied their basic rights?" asks Banerjee.

When the government sidesteps the issue of formulating clear-cut policies and enabling measures for the disabled, it is denying a peaceful minority in this country a basic and inalienable human right -- the right to live with dignity.

(Rajashri Dasgupta is a freelance journalist working on gender, health and development issues)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2008