Friday, 27 July 2018

MSJE101: Reasonable accommodation

The number in the title is to suggest that this blogpost might be part of a first course to our MSJE just as A101 might be a first course in algebra. The first chapter in the text prescribed for the course might begin with how the  UNCRPD defines this notion and go on to explain the terms used in this definition:

“Reasonable accommodation” means necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Let me cut to the chase and get to my specific gripe. Briefly, as reward for my mathematical research accomplishments, I was chosen, about a decade ago, to receive a handsome fellowship from the Dept. of Science and Technology. This Fellowship allowed me to spend an almost obscenely large amount of money each year on my research - buy books, computers, travel for conferences anywhere in the world where I had been invited to talk, etc. Unfortunately, within a decade of my falling victim to multiple scleroses, I found that I needed to be assisted for many things - tying shoelaces, tearing open the little plastic/paper bags in which planes served you sugar, pepper, salt, after dinner mints, etc. All these stupid problems resulted in rendering solo travel unfeasible and my consequently having to turn down several invitations to international conferences dealing with precisely my areas of interest/expertise.

When I spoke to my then Director (normally positive and receptive to my needs re accessibility), he said I had best seek permission from the Secretary, DST - whom I knew from having served together for three years on the Executive Council of the Indian Academy of Sciences. As narrated in a past blogpost,, he enabled me to have my wife accompany me on all work-related travel, with the cost of her accompanying me being met from the contingency grant component of my fellowship. In fact, he said that DST left the decision making to the director of my institute. And my then director was happy to interpret the rules in my favour. In fact, not long after, consequent to a horrifying experience (see my post when we flew back from Hyderabad in 2010, my then director even consented to my request/demand that when we flew `on my fellowship', he waive the government requirement that when scientists were reimbursed for flights they took `on duty', they should fly Air India.

From that time to the date of my `super-annuation' last year, I enjoyed the reasonable accommodation, extended to me, via my then director, by that past secretary of DST, by permitting my wife to travel with me  to  academic conferences in Trivandrum (now re-christened  Thiruvananthapuram), Bangalore (Bengaluru), Kolkata (Calcutta), Delhi, Tirunelveli, Hyderabad, Kanpur, and even Berkeley, California and Toronto in North America, and Aberystwyth, in Wales, UK. I have advertised the broad-mindedness of my institute and of DST in extending this `reasonable accommodation' to me elsewhere in this blog and even in acknowledgements in the foreword to some of the recent math books I wrote.

Just as the phrase `super-annuation' reminds one of the phrases `use by' or `expiry date', it also seemed to galvanise the thus far silent auditors of the institute into keenly scrutinising the institute using the fellowship thus. This has had two repercussions: (i) my current director feels constrained by the auditors' qualms to have my wife's ticket covered by my fellowship; and (ii) the spectre of the arbitrary `Air India rule' again threatens to haunt me.

Even after `super-annuation' (in April 2017), I am apparently not perceived as being totally useless: thus my named fancy fellowship has been extended till the end of 2018; and I receive invitations to lecture all over India. But I will no longer be able to have my wife by my side to take care of the numerous personal needs necessitated by my `disability' or the freedom to fly Indigo which has taken great care of me and my wheelchair for many years, unless I pay for both our tickets from my pocket - even though my host institution would have promised, in their invitation to me,  that they would pay for my ticket, and there is all that money promised by my fellowship! And these `rules' of the Govt. are so arbitrary and not applied uniformly. For instance, the age of super-annuation is different in different institutions - 65 in the IITs and IISERs, and 60 in TIFR and my institution. (Even in my institute, I have known people super-annuating at 60,  a few at 62, a smaller number at 64, and even fewer at 65, these decisions supposedly being based on how productive they are perceived to be!) Incidentally there are three academies of science in India, and while the one based in Delhi insists on the `Air India rule', the one based in Bangalore apparently has no problem with their Fellows flying Indigo on `academy work'.

Let me conclude this long lament by explicitly pointing out how or why my being denied the accommodations extended to me by the old DST secretary and my former director is directly violative of the `reasonable accommodation' recommended by the UNCRPD.

To put it in a nutshell, I have spent 46 years of my life doing mathematics, in the process acquiring a specialisation with a flavour created uniquely by my particular trajectory in the study and research in my areas of specialisation. A mathematician at my level of expertise/competence would consider the freedom to participate, in conferences all over the world dealing with areas where (s)he has something to learn as well as contribute, a fundamental right. To exercise this right, I would need India to modify her rules so that whenever I am invited to attend a meeting/conference, I should be able to fly with my wife in a carrier of my choice, and have both our bills paid by whoever invited me. This should be done if India claims to be a signatory to the UNCRPD.

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