Monday, 27 January 2014

The Jekyll and Hyde bill

What follows is a portrayal of the facts regarding the chasm that has opened within the `disability sector' in India so the reader can form an independent opinion. (I am sorry for going on an on talking about this matter, but it is of prime importance to me and several friends of mine and this is a crucial stage.)

In December 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the UNCRPD (or the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), which sought (a) to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities; it gave an inclusive definition of `persons with disabilities; (b)  an unconditional Right to Equality and Non Discrimination to all persons with disabilities, on par with others; (c) recognition of legal capacity for all persons with disabilities, and recognition that persons with disabilities enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life; (d) to categorically state that non-consensual institutionalization of persons with disabilities is violative of Article 14; etc.,etc., (with the general attitude being extremely inclusive and sensitive). 

In October 2007, India became a signatory to this convention. Already, India had enacted a Persons with Disabilities Act in 1995 which reads great on paper, but has been toothless to implement till today because of ambiguous language and convenient escape clauses. In an attempt to make the UNCRPD dream a reality, an effort was initiated in 2009 to draft a Right to Disabilities Bill at which time several people and organisations were involved in the drafting, who stressed that certain matters should be absolutely non-negotiable; and when there was some resistance to including this `non-negotiable list', at least three people resigned from the drafting committee. This attempt to create and push a suitable RPD Bill continued for some years and made periodic signs – in 2012 (when an actual draft was made, which already had some critical responses), and  in 2013 (when some noises were made but no draft was sighted) - of coming into being but suddenly in December 2013, there were campaigns in the social media to have the RPD Bill tabled and passed before the elections and possible emergence of a new government. There was an unseemly haste to have this Bill passed before a draft was even made available for inspection.

And now we hear the UPA stating that it is committed to tabling and passing the RPD Bill in the budget session, and this `Bill' has not been made available for public scrutiny. When one finally got to see this Bill after much ferreting around, one finds that there are so many divergences – in word and spirit – between this RPD Bill of 2014 and the UNCRPD, that several organisations of the Disability sector have been asking that `this Bill be immediately scrapped' while some die-hards in Delhi are still trying to push the bill through for unfathomable reasons. Here are some of those divergences that have caused all the anger, bitterness and sense of betrayal among the former brand of disability activists:

This Bill has compromised on just about everything imaginable: the definition of a PWD: stressing on `prevention of disabilities'; lack of effective means of implementation of rights under the convention; waiving the right to not be discriminated against on the grounds of disability if it is shown that the impugned act or omission is appropriate to achieving a legitimate aim; the rights of PWD to facilities in bus stops, trains and airports is trivialised to a bare minimum; it limits mandatory observance of accessibility norms only to “establishments”, defined in a very limited and restricted way, thereby excluding a large number of buildings from its purview; appoints `Limited guardians' for persons who are declared to be mentally ill and incapable of taking care of themselves and making legally binding decisions for themselves., adding that  the limited guardian shall take all legally binding decisions on his or her behalf, in consultation with that person; creates a category of persons with “high support needs”   on behalf of whom an Assessment Board can make decisions; all mention of women with disabilities has been removed from the 2011 Draft of the Bill which was modelled on the UNCRPD'; lest you think this was a small oversight, articles numbered 6,7,8,10, 12 and 13 have been removed in their entirety. I hope I have conveyed the desired impression, viz. that it is more a bill of denied rights. I could go on and on; the list of commissions and omissions goes on and on, ad nauseum.

In response to every set of objections raised by some disability activists, the Delhi gang responds with yet another cosmetically altered version which will still deprive large sections of disabled people, leading one to think that the only possible raison d'etre for persisting with this non-starter could be increasing the political clout of a few among the Delhi group and bolstering the sagging reputation of assorted political parties who might be party to this exercise.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Dubious tactics and unseemly haste

As a kid, you might have heard the song starting `Ten green bottles hanging on the wall' which goes on to descraibe how they were broken/destroyed one by one, till you finally get down to `One green bottle hanging on the wall' and you sort of despairingly hope that some divine providence will save at least this one. The lot of people with disabilities in India is beginning to look like a macabre deja vu of this song. First there was the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995 which spoke of the Promised Land where rights were protected and full participation in all aspects of life were promised. Years passed with no steps being taken to facilitate this `Full Participation'. Elsewhere, the whole world was waking to the crying need to remedy such affairs. Thus, in December 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the UNCRPD (or the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), and in October 2007, India became a signatory to this convention. Five years go by, and a new `Rights for People with Disabilities' (RPD) Bill is drafted, which already makes strikingly divergent strides from the perceptions of the UNCRPD : while the latter strove to be a policy instrument which was `cross-disability' and `cross-sectoral', the former brought in new terms such as `guardianship and legal capacity'  as well as drawing up an arbitrary list of conditions recognised as `being disabled', and this draft never became more than just a draft. (Already a few bottles down: even the number of letters in the acronym have come down from 6 to 3!) There were attempts to revive this in 2013, and no more; and with every new `step forward' at least one more green bottle fell off the wall.

And now there is a sudden resurgence of this RPD which started with the signature campaign in the social media (which I spoke about in my last post) asking people to sign a petition demanding that the Government table and pass this Bill at the earliest viable time - and with no indication of where a draft of this proposed Bill may be seen. This seems to be a closely guarded secret. To top it all, an individual, who has been identified by the Press (for reasons best known to themselves) as the go-to man for all issues concerning PwD, is flying down from Delhi to a special meeting at the end of this month to be held in Chennai (the one place where some PwD seem to be showing some sign of dissent), to solicit further support for the tabling and passing of this unseen bill (which may have -7 green bottles on the wall by the time it is passed).

If you had been led to believe that a certain piece of property promised to be a paradise on earth, and if the person trying to sell this `piece of Eden' came half way across the country to ask several people to buy in to this proposal, and would not even give you a chance to read the legal document you were signing, you would need to have your head examined if you signed it. It reminds me of a clip where you see a picture of Richard Nixon (post-Watergate) and hear a voice in the background saying `would you buy a used car from this man'?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A volte-face

Not long ago, being somewhat misinformed, and without making sure of the facts, I was guilty of some poor judgement. I signed a petition saying `Minister of Parliamentary Affairs: Pass the Disability Rights Bill #disabilityrights - Sign the Petition!, and worse, `shared this' on facebook, thereby essentially asking my `fb friends' to do something similar, which many of them have, to my chagrin now. The reason for this volte-face is that I signed that petition without reading the current state of `the bill' (it was not anywhere to be seen; and still seems to be a bit of a mystery). I am now finding various reasons why I had been hasty, without getting my facts straight. My reasons for this reversal of position are best illustrated by the following excerpts from emails I have received from two of the more (well-informed, and) seasoned campaigners of this group of  truly amazing individuals calling themselves the `Disability Rights Alliance' which has done me the undeserved honour of including me in their ranks:

The Disability Rights Alliance welcomed the move to introduce a new Bill in Parliament to address the needs of the disabled citizens of India. The existing Persons with Disabilities Act of 1996 was a landmark piece of legislation at that time. It was the first attempt in independent India to address the needs of disabled citizens. However, the legislation is archaic and is overdue for an update.
The proposed Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2013 had the potential to meet the lacunae in the PWD Act and revolutionise the lives of the disabled in this country. It had the potential to finally make and treat us equal in the eyes of the law and empower the disabled to take control of their own lives and destinies.
But to ensure this potential is realized, as responsible citizens, we have a right and duty to examine the Bill as it is to be presented before the Parliament. The version of the Bill in circulation (available on Ministry website) is from 2011. This Bill was unacceptable to the disabled people of India in its limitations. The Bill to be introduced is of 2013. What changes have been made are not in the public domain.
This is disturbing as the 2011 version of the rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill was deeply flawed in its fundamentals. We are particularly concerned about the Bill’s position in the following areas:
Compliance with International Law governing the rights of Persons with Disabilities – the UNCRPD of which India is a signatory and has ratified.

Guardianship and legal capacity: These issues have potential to curtail civil liberties and thus have no place in legislation that talks about rights. Additionally, issues of guardianship and legal capacity are not restricted to disabled people alone and should be addressed in different legislation – including them in this legislation is itself discriminatory. 

Economic and political rights of people traditionally denied participation due to legally imposed disabilities of incapacity.

Inclusion of people who experience disability vs restrictive lists of traditional disabilities – how can an anti-discrimination law which touts inclusion, itself exclude so summarily?
The bill of 2012 had barely changed from its original form in terms of limited guardianship, quality education, authorities, vacuum in statistics and data collection, political participation. 

The bill of 2012 had nothing new to bring to the table in terms of fulfillment of our enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with others.



Agree with you on this Meenakshi. Have been amazed at the recent flip flops on the fundamentals. I find this flippancy disrespectful of the sector - some of us actually meant what we said and said what we meant... (to quote my hero Horton).

This cavalier and campaign style of advocacy cannot bring about sustainable change. I can somehow make my peace with politicking, strategising, manipulation, blackmail, corruption or bribery if the outcome is as sweeping as the the 13th Amendment to the U.S.

THAT would be worth it, THIS is a puling compromise.