By Shalvi Singh, WBNUJS, Kolkata.

Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD), Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, formulated the Accessible India Campaign as a nation-wide campaign for achieving universal accessibility for People with Disabilities (PwDs). Consequently, the government on 3rd December 2015 (which is also celebrated as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities) launched the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan).

The Accessible India Campaign is a 5-year initiative that aims at making public spaces, transport (airports and railway stations), tourist places, and information and communication technology in India differently-able friendly. It also seeks to make at least 50% of all government buildings in the national capital and all state capitals ‘fully accessible’ for the differently abled people by July 2018. As the present campaign only involves making government buildings accessible, the government also plans to release an ‘Accessible Index’ which would rate the public and private companies for disabled friendly initiatives being undertaken by them. Thus, the companies would be incentivised to take up disable friendly initiatives. Credits would be given to the companies for building disabled-friendly office buildings, investing in training and career development of the disabled staff, enrolling disabled persons, and the quality of facilities being provided to them. In addition to this, the government also aims at making television viewing accessible by compulsorily requiring that 25% of the programmes telecasted on Doordarshan are disabled friendly.

NEED FOR ACCESSIBILITY

In this age of Digital India, we overlook the fact that a differently abled person in India still has no access to a railway ticket counter or an online passport appointment. Besides, developmental schemes for disabled persons find no mention in the party portfolios due to the sheer indifference of political parties towards the differently-abled people. Only 2% of disabled people in India are self-dependent. Also, many of our government’s vocational training classes for disabled people are obsolete. They are still taught low waged works like cane weaving and envelope making. Hence, a need arises to build an inclusive society where every person is able to participate fully in all aspects of life and live a normal life. Universal accessibility is critical for giving equal opportunity to the differently abled people so that they are able to live their life independently and comfortably.

The Accessible India Campaign is a commendable step towards achieving a ‘society for all’. As per the Census 2011 data released by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, 2.6 crore people in India are differently-abled. This constitutes about 2.21% of the population of the country (though this data is misleading as a considerable number of cases go unreported because the families do not want to disclose that one of their family members is disabled and also not all types of disabilities were recognised while taking the census). Considering that such a large part of the population consists of differently-abled people, there is a need to provide them accessibility. But surprisingly, it was more of an accident rather than intention that the government learnt about the accessibility problem being faced by the disabled people.

It was in 2001, when Stephen Hawking came to visit India and wished to see some of the Indian monuments, it was revealed that none of the monuments in India were disabled-friendly for the sole reason that this particular section of the population was never given any importance. No one cared about the problems faced by the disabled people, though five years ago, in 1995, the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act [hereinafter referred to as ‘PwD Act’] was passed by the legislature to provide equal opportunity and protection to the disabled people. This deplorable state is bolstered by the fact that the world’s largest democracy having one of the largest differently-abled population took so many years in understanding the inconvenience being faced by these people.

The PwD Act under Sections 44, 45 and 46 categorically provides for non-discrimination in participation, non-discrimination of the roads and built up environment. India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).  Article 9 of UNCRPD casts an obligation on all the signatory governments “to take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.

The advocates of PwD rights are pushing for an amendment in the PwD Act so that it is in conformity with the provisions of this convention. There is a bill pending in the parliament named the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014 which seeks to replace the PwD Act. Instead of seven disabilities specified in the PwD Act, this bill covers nineteen such conditions. In addition to this, the Bill also provides for certain benefits such as reservations in education and employment, preference in government schemes, etc. for people with at least 40% of a disability.

CONCLUSION

Though the Accessible India Campaign is a huge step towards building an inclusive society, a lot needs to be done in order to make it disabled friendly. This campaign is the first step towards addressing the problems of the differently-abled people. Once this is achieved, the government should target more complex issues such as accessibility to education and employment sector. But the government alone cannot solve these issues. The private sector should also come forward to help. Presently, the Companies Act 2013 makes it mandatory for the companies to spend 2% of their profits on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This would ensure that the companies also work towards the welfare of disabled people.

In addition to this, some amendments need to be done in the PwD Act. For instance, the PwD Act provides for incentives if the company derives more than 5% of its workforce from disabled people. But, the nature of incentives has not been provided in the Act. This must be done because if attractive incentives are given to companies, private sector companies would be encouraged to employ the differently-abled people.

Neither education nor employment is possible without accessibility. We can only build an inclusive society in its true sense when every person regardless of his background is given an equal opportunity to achieve his full potential in life, and this cannot be done without effective law and policy.