Sunday, 25 December 2016

Achche Din have arrived - and how!

2016 has been a knockout year on so many counts. I don't think the world can survive too many more such years. Here is a list of the various body blows she has been subjected to: Brexit, Trump, increasing violence by American cops against black kids, American legislation permitting students to carry guns (even machine guns) into the classroom, people being forced to flee from country to country due to bias against their `unfamiliar' customs/languages/religions ...

Coming to India, boys being manhandled, even killed, because they were suspected of eating beef (when in fact they had not), repeated instances of young Dalit men committing suicide in hostels of IITs because of the daily trauma they were subjected to, a man with physical disability being brutally assaulted because he did not stand up for, and was thereby guilty of disrespect to, the national anthem; who cares if he didn't stand because he couldn't? Now the Supreme Court has ruled that everybody should stand when the national anthem is played at the end of each screening of a movie; the doors are to be closed until the anthem is over, to prevent people from leaving the movie hall before the last `jaya hey' is sung; never mind the fire hazard caused by such locking in of people; and finally, EVERYBODY, without exception, MUST STAND for the anthem! Even a wheelchair user?

And for the icing on the cake, the much heralded RPD Bill was tabled in Parliament amidst many adjournments in view of opposition parties protesting the recent demonetisation exercise that was suddenly thrust on the man on the street, thereby creating chaos and untold hardship on those people who do not have the luxury of holding bank accounts or credit cards.

The RPD Bill was unanimously passed with essentially no discussion, in spite of the numerous proposed amendments. The reader of this blog will know that an attempt was made to hurriedly pass an even more objectionable version of this Bill in 2014. The Disability Rights Activists in Delhi, whose opinions are usually the only ones sought by our National Press,  have been peddling the dubious `Something is better than nothing' or `You can never have a perfect bill' line, and strongly supporting the passing the bill in 2014 itself. Fortunately, enough people saw the drawbacks of the Bill and made a big noise on social media to ensure that the Bill was forwarded to a Standing Committee. After many people, including the loudest of the voices from the DRA, made a big issue of the need for consultations being held outside Delhi also, the Standing Committee came to Chennai and Bangalore and graciously gave plenty of time for DRA to explain the reasons for their opposition to the Bill. They subsequently incorporated many of our suggestions in their recommendations to the Govt., and the resulting changes in the draft of the Bill reflect that. Unfortunately, the Bill was still passed with enough drawbacks for many of us to get really annoyed when a senior activist like Javed Abidi vociferously backed the passing of the Bill `at least this time' and later applauded vociferously when the Bill was passed. The reason for our annoyance with him is that there is a large group of people in Delhi who seem to unthinkingly agree with anything he says, possibly because the National Press has almost made him the face of Indian Disability Rights. The current Bill is ideologically faulty and dangerous.  As one of the leading lights of the DRA says: Better the group suffers than an individual's liberty lost.

Let me iterate a few of the gripes I have with the current avatar of this bill:

The bill claims slightly pompously that Disability has been defined based on an evolving and dynamic concept, whereas what has evolved is that the number of conditions that have been `defined' as constituting disability has now been increased to 21! I challenge anybody from the ministry entrusted with matters related to PWD, whom they have rechristened as Divyangjan in spite of vigorous protests by those so renamed, to give a clear argument as to why these, and only these, 21 conditions may be called forms of disability!

So many clauses are phrased with a built-in loophple which is almost clamouring to provide shelter for offenders of the Bill. Let me illustrate:

Clause (3) states: No person with disability shall be discriminated on the ground of disability, unless it is shown that the impugned act or omission is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Clause 9. (1) states: No child with disability shall be separated from his or her parents on the ground of disability except on an order of competent court, if required, in the best interest of the child.

Clause 14: My better-informed friends of the DRA have grave reservations on the implications of this whole `guardianship' issue  for `legal capacity'; and in fact consider this the most objectionable clause in this Bill.

My final gripe is the toothlessness of this law replete with grand statements with no indication of either `by when the stipulated measures would be in place' or `what the penalty for violations would be' and `how does one ensure this'. Such statements as the following are everywhere dense in this Bill:

Clauses 16 and 17, dealing with inclusive education, make promises that have been fulfilled probably only in  the UK or USA. I have been in the business of research and education for the past 35 years and screaming about the need for accessibility for the past five or six years, and IISc, Bengaluru (considered by many as the jewel in the crown of our research and higher education) has hardly shown an iota of improvement all this time in terms of accessability.

In conclusion, what can I do if, five years from now, I still find:
  • that the following buidings are still hopelessly inaccessible:
  1. the Vigyan Bhavan where the Government periodically chooses to honour various Divyangjan for sundry achievements - which less divine people find `inspirational'?
  2. IISc, TIFR, CMI or various IITs, where one still sees people with locomotor disabilities being carried up numerous flights of stairs on the backs of friends to get to class;
  3. Movie Theatres where there is either no room to park a wheelchair, or the inevitable steps to go up to one's seats (unless they are in the first row);
  4. the Music Academy and other concert halls during the Chennai season which have stayed an essentially forgotten experience ever since I could not comfortably/safely walk on my own two feet;
  • or that I cannot enter my bank or use its ATM machines which are decorated with their inevitable three or four steps with a swinging door that opens outwards like adding insult to injury.
  • or that I cannot use public transport because (i) I could not cross a street which has been thoughtffully provided with a three foot high road divider, or (ii) I could not get down from a platform to use a bus, or (iii) I cannot use a train because of different levels of platform and train, or (iv) I have to fly everywhere, with my wife, and it is costly when I can no longer `claim the expense'.

Which minister without a trace of divinity do I sue the pants off of, for this “discrimination” in relation to disability (Divyangjan) as defined by Clause 2(h) of this Bill, i.e., distinction, exclusion, restriction on the basis of disability, impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field and discrimination and denial of reasonable accommodation.

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