DISABILITY has remained largely an issue quite outside the scope of the so-called mainstream. The disabled were left out of the political, cultural and economic spheres and continue to be denied access in almost every sphere of life. The disabled continue to be looked upon as embodiments of sin or as omens of ill-luck. The situation began to alter somewhat along with the advancement of science and technology. Attempts were made to bring them in the areas of education, recreation etc. The first school for the visually impaired was set up in India in the 1880s. A school for hearing impaired too was established at around the same time. Although these were laudable efforts the vast multitude of disabled persons remained outside the scope of such opportunities.
It was a matter of coincidence which brought me into this movement. I knew a boy of my neighbourhood who was disabled. Once I asked him to assemble as many disabled persons as possible. The turn out was quite good. Seeing so many persons suffering from some problems or the other, I felt that they need to be organised around their demands. Thus began the journey of Dakshin Sahartali Pratibandhi Sammilani in the southern suburbs of Kolkata. With the cooperation of the people associated with the democratic movement and the disabled activists themselves, in a convention held at Moulali Yuva Kendra, Paschimbanga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani came in to being in the year 1986 with the motto—“economic rehabilitation and social recognition”.
From the very beginning, our efforts were to combine multidimensional activities to reach out to the maximum number of disabled persons. Not only did we stress on launching struggles on some relevant demands but also to engage ourselves in some constructive activities because we felt that our foremost task was to reach out to as many people as we could.
The Paschimbanga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani was one of the very few organisations which raised demand for a national disability policy. In a convention held in the year 1990, we presented to the then minister of social welfare, Ramvilas Paswan, our demands for the national policy. Disability activists from as many as 14 states participated in the convention.
On February 20-21, 2010 a convention under the banner of National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) was held in Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata. At that time, we had organisations in four states – West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka and Jharkhand. Representatives from other states such as Tamilnadu, Tripura, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana etc also participated. The convention adopted an approach paper apart from resolutions on employment, education and health and the existing legal framework.
The first big programme that was undertaken under the banner of the NPRD was a dharna in front of the Parliament House on April 20, 2010 where about 5000 persons with disability and their caregivers gathered to voice their demands. A delegation comprising the leaders of NPRD met the prime minister and submitted a memorandum containing some urgent demands including the need for a universally valid identity card that would be acceptable across departments and states; proper social security for the disabled etc.
Subsequently, the NPRD has taken up several issues with central government ranging from the travails of the disabled persons traveling in railways to the discrimination meted out to visually impaired candidates successful in the civil service exams by not giving them proper posting. In the wake of the recent incidents of sexual harassment of women, NPRD played a positive role in the process of bringing forward the issue of the women with disability and many of our suggestions found their place in the Verma Committee Report and recommendations. We have appealed in courts of law to enforce the Supreme Court order to include disabled persons in the automatic inclusion category of Antyodaya Anna Yojna.
As we gear up for our first conference to be held on December 6-8 in Kerala, it gives me great satisfaction to mention that during the course of these three years, the NPRD has been able to spread to many states. States like Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tripura and West Bengal have already held their conferences.
The affiliates of states such as Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Tripura, Jharkhand and West Bengal have taken up various demands and launched struggles in their respective states. The main focus was to ensure the availability of entitlements to all the disabled people. The main demands were – to enact a new disability law in keeping with the UNCRPD, fare concession in local and passenger trains to the disabled people and their escorts, automatic inclusion of disabled persons in the BPL category, issuing Antyodaya cards to all disabled persons etc. Some states have begun to integrate the struggles with some constructive activities. Our Tamilnadu and Andhra affiliates have started publishing journals. Similar effort is underway in West Bengal.
Our experience of working in the country has shown us that just raising demands and organising programmes ignoring the prevalent political scenario yields no result. Moreover, to reach out to more and more people, we must broaden our ambit by involving many activists of other sections. So, we never stayed away from speaking clearly that this political system doesn’t accommodate the needs and aspirations of the disabled persons just like other oppressed classes.
The inordinate delay in bringing the Bill to enact a new law in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD), which emphasises a rights based approach towards disability, is the example of sheer apathy of the government. So, the immediate task is to intensify struggles to force the government to bring the new disability law replacing the flawed Persons with Disability (Equal opportunities, protection of rights and full participation) act, 1995.
In this background, we are gearing up for the first conference of National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) at Ernakulam, Kerala. The conference will be inaugurated through a big rally to be held at the Marine Drive, Ernakulam, on December 6. The delegate session would be held in the Ernakulam Town Hall. Over 300 delegates would take part in this historic conference. We have decided to felicitate disabled persons showing outstanding fighting spirit to overcome their disability. A reception committee has been set up under the chairmanship of P Rajiv, member of parliament. A huge publicity drive is on to spread the message of our first conference. The Differently Abled Welfare Federation (DAWF), our Kerala affiliate, is organising campaigns across the state for the successful organisation of the conference.
The main agenda of the conference is a discussion on the draft of the programme and constitution of the NPRD.
The conference would be a historic occasion for the disability activists and disabled persons of our country because a mass organisation is going to begin its journey towards intensifying struggles to make this country a better place for the disabled persons. When we discuss and deliberate on our future course of action, we must keep in mind those persons who still live in the remotest extremities of our country where there is no electricity, no school and no assistive devices. So, as we head towards the first conference of National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, let us find ways to reach out to the doorsteps of the poor and impoverished India, the real India.