While the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment continues to take an ostrich like attitude and push for Amendments to the Disability Act 1995, disabled rights activists from across the country were in Delhi on October 29 and 30 at the National Consultation on ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Respect for Dignity, Effective Participation and Inclusive Opportunities) Act, 2010’ organised by N.C.P.E.D.P., to take their demand for a fresh new law forward. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. takes a look at it.
Amendments to the Disability Act of 1995 have become like an urban legend in the disability sector. And why not? After all, from Maneka Gandhi to Meira Kumar to now Mukul Wasnik, amendments to the Act seem to be their favourite task. Although, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (M.S.J.E.) is all gung-ho about the amendments, for the disability sector it has come a tad too late – so late that it is time for a fresh new Act.
The Disability Act of 1995 came at a time when the rights based movement in India was at a nascent stage. Thus, it was like manna from heaven for a sector which till then had been neglected and segregated. However, 14 years since then, the paradigm has shifted considerably, more so with India ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (U.N.C.R.P.D.). Popular sentiment in the disability sector is that any amendments to the old Act will merely be cosmetic and mostly a patchwork.
Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) had formed a Core Group which took up the task of drafting a new law. A delegation met with Mukul Wasnik giving him a detailed representation on how the proposed amendments left out several provisions of U.N.C.R.P.D. There is an infectious excitement throughout the sector regarding a new law. So much so, that the D.R.G. Core Group even thought of a new name!
With a view to broadbase this discussion, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) organised a National Consultation on ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Respect for Dignity, Effective Participation and Inclusive Opportunities) Act, 2010’ in New Delhi on October 29 and 30. The top notch and most respected disabled rights activists from across the country were there. The Consultation was divided into different sessions over 2 days. The topics for discussion included ‘New Law and not Amendments’, ‘Definition of Disability’, ‘Legal Capacity’, ‘Accountability’ and ‘One Law and not Four Laws’. All the leaders and activists present unanimously agreed that the Disability Act of 1995 was archaic and had served its time.
What was interesting to see was that the issue attracted instant support from most mainstream, national level political parties. Prakash Karat, General Secretary of C.P.I. (M) and L.K. Advani of B.J.P. personally wrote to N.C.P.E.D.P. and nominated senior members from their parties to attend the Consultation. “Let me assure you that C.P.I. (M) is committed to the rights of people with disabilities. It would not be content with mere expression of solidarity or support. We will very much be part of your movement,” said Muralidharan, member of C.P.I. (M) at the Consultation.
“The 1995 Act was inadequate even when it was enacted. Today, in a changed circumstance, amendments by themselves even if aimed at overhauling the Act would not suffice. Only a fresh law replacing the 1995 Act would satisfy,” he stated categorically.
Najma Heptullah, Member of the Rajya Sabha from B.J.P. promised support on behalf of her party. She is the Chairperson of the Subordinate Legislation Committee and promised that she would also look into the lack of implementation of the Disability Act of 1995. She gave an assurance at the Consultation that she would personally take this issue up with Mukul Wasnik. Incidentally, Heptullah was the Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha when the Disability Act of 1995 was passed.
M.S.J.E. also seemed to be feeling the heat. Javed Abidi. Honorary Director, N.C.P.E.D.P. personally met Mukul Wasnik on October 22, who assured him that Ministry officials would be present at the Consultation. And sure enough Dr. Arbind Prasad, Joint Secretary and Nidhi Khare, Director, M.S.J.E. attended the Consultation on the first day. Dr. Prasad said that the Ministry was open to “suggestions”.
Although officials from M.S.J.E. seemed cagey about the whole issue, officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (P.M.O.) seemed to be more than willing to listen. Sanjay Mitra, Joint Secretary and Rajeev Topno, Deputy Secretary at P.M.O. answered queries from disabled activists ranging from the non – implementation of the XIth Five Year Plan to the question of a new law. Mitra said that disability was an issue close to the Prime Minister’s heart. He advised the sector to be resilient in their demand.
The discussions on both the days saw some exciting views come up. While the definition of disability was most debated, it was finally settled that the current definition envisaged in the draft Disability Act 2010 would be circulated and debated upon at a larger level to reach a consensus. Legal capacity and accountability were also discussed at length. Implementation of the law in general and accountability on part of both, government and the private sector in particular were a major concern at the Consultation.
“It is unfortunate that in this country a person can be penalized for cutting down a tree or for jumping a traffic light but there are no punitive measures to ensure that the rights of disabled people are judiciously implemented and that they are not exploited and abused,” said Abidi.
Praveen Kumar and Victor Cordeiro spoke at length about the need to take the grassroots level disabled population into consideration and ensure that the law is implemented properly. Another topic which saw a much heated argument was the issue of having one consolidated law rather than four different laws on disability. The leadership seemed to be clearly divided on the issue. Even though the merits of having an umbrella law were articulately placed by the speakers, the jury on this one is still out.
It became very clear by the end of the Consultation that there can be no two ways on the sector’s stand on amendments. However much the Ministry tries to play with semantics, the writing on the wall is loud and clear: “No to Amendments and Yes to New Law.” The leadership who attended the Consultation vouched to carry this cry to the length and breadth of India. N.C.P.E.D.P. is planning to follow this National Consultation with four Zonal Consultations, sometime around January next year. In the meantime, the drafting process of the Disability Act 2010 by the D.R.G. Core Group in New Delhi is expected to be over by December. This draft would be widely circulated and discussed in the sector and the final draft would then be submitted to the government.
The Indian disability sector has always been accused of being reactive. But this time around, they have decided to take control of things and play a strongly proactive role. If the Ministry officials have a quarter of pragmatism and intelligence they credit themselves with, they would surely see a golden opportunity to set an example by joining hands with the disability movement, rather than fight with them or mock at them. An example of Government – N.G.O. ‘partnership’. An example that probably will take the meaning of democracy to a new and higher level.