A new Act greatly enhances the rights and protections for the tens of millions of Indians with disability, Martand Jha writes.
Last month, the Indian Parliament passed much needed and long awaited legislation on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in India. The new disability law is going to affect ‘at least’ 26.8 million people, according to the numbers from the 2011 population census, although these numbers are highly contested by almost all the disability rights groups in India.
Data from the World Bank suggests that India has 80 to 90 million people with a disability, which is one of the highest in the world. The new act, therefore, impacts a large chunk of India’s population – people who have been the most marginalised section of society historically. People with a disability are also one of the largest minority groups in India and have a very small representation in both organised as well as non-organised sectors of the Indian economy.
The new Act replaces the previous Persons with Disability (PWD) Act 1995, which was not a rights-based piece of legislation. The most important feature of the new Act is that it has recognised and increased the number of disabilities from seven to 21, including mental illness, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, chronic neurological conditions, and more. Acid attack victims and Parkinson’s disease have also been added to the list.
Secondly, insulting a person with a disability has been declared a criminal offence where a fine of up to Rs 10,000 for the first violation and not “less than 50,000 rupees but which may extend to five lakh” for subsequent contraventions has been included in the new Act. This has been adopted as a ‘deterrent’ for those who habitually insult persons with disabilities.
The third important aspect of the new Act is that it has increased the quota for disabled persons from three per cent to four per cent in government jobs and three per cent to five per cent in educational institutions. The legislation has been enacted ten years after India became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ratified it back in 2006. After a decade-long activism by civil society groups, the new Act has finally come into force.
The best thing about the legislation was that all members of Indian Parliament showed a rare unanimity in passing the disability bill, so much so that it was the only bill in the winter session of the Indian Parliament to be passed. Critics argue that the new Act is not going to change societal attitudes to persons with disabilities, which are often patronising and discriminatory in nature. Critics also note that all sorts of good things were said when the historic 1995 PWD Act was passed, but little has been achieved in terms of changing attitudes towards those with a disability.
This is highlighted by the fact that out of the allotted three per cent quota reserved for disabled persons, only 0.5 per cent of seats were filled in the 20 years since the enactment of the PWD Act. Mostly, disabled candidates are not given jobs as employers are in the habit of expounding their favourite catchphrase ‘Not Found Suitable’.
For the education of persons with disabilities, two important provisions have been included. Firstly, every child with benchmark (40 per cent) disability between the ages of six and 18 years will have the right to free education. Secondly, government funded educational institutions, as well as government recognised institutions, will have to provide inclusive education to children with disabilities.
Another important thing the new Act does is to talk about increasing accessibility by building ramps and lifts in all buildings. This is linked to the ‘Accessible India’ campaign started by the Indian Government in 2015. The nation-wide flagship campaign for achieving universal accessibility will enable persons with disabilities to gain access to equal opportunities, live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life in an inclusive society. The campaign targets enhancing the accessibility of the built environment transport systems and the information and communications ecosystem.
The Act specially mentions women and children with disabilities as both these groups have very specific needs requiring separate recognition that had not been included in the previous PWD Act. The new legislation also defines what constitutes discrimination towards persons with disabilities because earlier discrimination was very vaguely interpreted.
On the whole, the new Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act is a significant improvement on the previous legislation as it provides hope for nearly 5 per cent of the country’s population that things will eventually turn for better for persons with disabilities in India.