R SAI VENKATESH | Chennai: The apex court, in the first week of July, has ruled that the extension of benefits and relaxations to the disabled section of society must be the same as that offered to the socially backward communities. This ruling has been received with much welcome by various experts and activists for disability rights. The judgment also gives credit to the Delhi High Court ruling in 2012, against a University which offered only a 5 percent concession for the disabled candidates while offering 10 percent for the SC/ST candidates. However, the apex court ruling addresses only one among an ocean of concerns.
The Indian Constitution explicitly provides for reservation in education and employment for the socially backward classes in society, a move aimed at elevating their status in society due to the relentless discrimination faced by them in the past. Reservations are also offered under the category of economic backwardness for education and employment in government jobs as per the 124th Constitutional amendment act.
However, reservations for the disabled section are not explicitly enshrined in the Indian Constitution and are offered via statutory provisions. The ‘Rights of Persons with Disabilities ‘, Act, 2016, covers 21 distinct types of disabilities and also entitles them for a 3- 4 percent reservation in higher education and government jobs. It also mandates all educational institutions, receiving government aid to provide for an age relaxation norm of at least 5 years during the admission processes.
Though the percentage of reservation is different for each of them, the benefits and relaxations enjoyed by each vary with one another, especially in the education sector. The Supreme Court, however, has addressed this long-standing concern, entitling the same benefits to the disabled section as enjoyed by the other sections, especially the SC/ST.
Physical disability and Social disability
One of the main concerns that have been voiced is over the principle behind equating physical disability with a social disability, which conveys a different meaning and contradicts the spirit of the reservation system. However, deeper scrutiny will say otherwise.
The UNCRPD (UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities) highlights the root cause for disability in its preamble. Attitudinal and environmental barriers are perceived to be the hindrances that prevent a person with a disability from engaging in full and effective participation within the society.
Disability, in addition to being a medical condition, is also social venom. The socio-economic constraints that hamper the advancement of disability are often made out of the social stigma which prevails among people. This is often overlooked in a largely populated country like India with a diverse culture.
A report by the World Bank talks about the attitude towards the differently-abled or people with disability, comparing state of Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh which have a higher proportion of disabled section. The findings of the report cause malaise as more than half of the rural respondents in these states believe that disability is a curse of God, a form of divine justice. This is a very different form of social seclusion that highlights the need for blanket protection by the government.
Legislation in place
Relief to the disabled is the responsibility of both the Centre and the States as the subject falls under the concurrent list as per the seventh schedule of the Constitution. Any efforts on their development are drafted by the center and modified by the state governments in power according to their needs. India is a signatory of the UNCRPD and ratified it in the year 2007. The laws and focus on the disabled thus align with the norms and principles offered by the convention, with a greater focus towards the implementation of a barrier-free environment in lieu of a charity based approach.
The Right of Persons with Disabilities (PWD), Act, 2016 has covered various domains of disability including the acid attack victims, has accounted for the provision of plenary guardian rights, takes into consideration their grievances on a larger scale and has mandated a much-needed reservation for their development in the society.
The Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan or Accessible India Campaign launched in the year 2015 aims to enhance their accessibility. The Campaign also deems them to be ‘Divyang’ or a divine body, giving a new angle to the perception around them and aims at the creation of an inclusive society that can provide an equal opportunity for their development.
Aside from this, the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, exclusively recognizes individuals suffering from mental illness and provides for a Centre and State Mental Health Authority to aid and advise the government.
A worrying matter
The laws and provisions pertaining to the disabled do strive to implement their mammoth tasks. However, the concern lies even deeper in the initial levels.
The PWD Act provides for reservation in higher education and government jobs and the Right to Education (RTE) act ubiquitously covers primary and secondary education. It, however, fails to keep scrutiny on how far the education is reaching the disabled section of the society.
As per the 2011 census, only 55 percent of the disabled were literates, which amounts to a mere 1.46 cr of the population which is lesser than the country’s literacy rate. Even in employment, only one-third of the disabled are among the working population, with males occupying the higher spot. The reservations offered, thus play a minimal role when a vast majority of this section is yet to receive a primary education which is vital for their professional and overall development.
A point to be noted is also their lack of representation in the parliament. Not many politicians or civil servants today come from the disabled section, making their voice fragile and weak leading to their marginalization. It is a cause of worry that the system which has paved way for the representation of women, empowering them to be legislators, has had minimal progress in the underrepresentation of the disabled.
The pandemic has also reminded the legislature about the need to adequately represent the disabled in the law-making processes. The repetitive lockdowns affected the migrant workers, unorganized sector, and the disabled equally or perhaps more as the very principle of social distancing makes a mockery out of their day-to-day activities which largely relies on external assistance. The lockdown has worsened their accessibility to basic requisites against the so many provisions which say otherwise.
The apex court ruling might have addressed a cause of worry. However, it appears to be covering the ocean of worries only on a superficial scale. Their adequate representation in the parliament and legislatures are necessary to ensure that the policies framed are not oblivious to the divyang.