Interview

Volume 1 Issue 2 - January 04, 2012

Colleges lack funds to build accessible toilets

Studentsí Welfare Office has been set up in Delhi University (DU) to look after anything and everything related to the rights of disabled students and other marginalised groups, taking admission in the university.

Hema Raghavan, dean of Gargi College and in-charge of Students' Welfare OfficeThe Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 clearly states that every college should be made accessible to students with disability.

Moreover, University Grants Commission (UGC), under its schemes, provides grants for making colleges accessible and for buying equipment and resource materials for disabled students. The scheme also provides for setting up Disability Units in the colleges.

Interestingly, a recent survey conducted by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) found out that principals of most colleges were completely unaware of these UGC schemes.

Hema Raghavan, dean of Gargi College, took charge of the Studentsí Welfare Office in year 2000. In an interview with Sudeshna Banerjee, she clarifies the role of Studentsí Welfare Office vis-ŗ-vis the dismal state of accessibility and lack of basic sensitisation in Delhiís colleges.

However, she mentions that DU is in the process of making its Arts Faculty, the main library and one of its hostels disabled friendly.

Q: What has been the role of DU in helping disabled students?

I took over as the Dean of Studentsí Welfare Unit of DU in year 2000 and from then this is my third year in succession. I have used this position to help disabled students get admission in the university.

This is, ofcourse, in consonance with the order of Supreme Court that makes it mandatory for three per cent reservation in DU for disabled students. What I felt is that during mid summer, when it is very hot, it is difficult for a disabled student to physically go to every college to apply. It looked criminal to harass a student like that. So I took up the initiative to create a central platform for disabled students, wherein they can come to Studentsí Welfare Office and fill up the forms. We take upon the responsibility to give them admission as per their need and requirement and their marks.

We have been successful in getting this done so far.

Q: The three percent disability quota allows only two seats per course, per college. It has been seen that even when a student has better marks, s/he is forced to take admission in a college, where the cut off percentage is way below her/his marks. Why canít the quota also allow students with better marks to have their own preference of course or college?

It is like this - if the strength of a particular class is 30, then three per cent of it will be one seat in that course. So depending on the strength of a particular course in a particular college, seats are reserved for various categories, be it for scheduled castes/ tribes (SC/ ST) students or disabled students.

When we are actually helping the students to fill up the forms, we give them 30 choices of the course, they want to opt for and 30 choices of colleges in order of preference. Only the third component is their cut off marks. So, disabled students with extremely high percentages can go to colleges of their choice.

Q: What about other intelligent candidates who have secured marks much above average but are denied admission to the college of their choice? If a student has secured 80 per cent marks and has applied in, say, Hindu or Hansraj, where the cut off percentage for her/his choice of course is also 80 per cent, then should s/he not get admission to the course in that college?

If you have the requisite marks, you should not avail of reservation. They need not show their disability certificate for admission. This holds true for all categories.

Apart from students who are exceptionally good, others have to bear with the availability of course or college if they want to avail of the reservation. If they feel they deserve a better college since they have better marks, they can go directly to the concerned college and apply.

Nobody can deny a disabled student the right to admission if s/he has the requisite marks and comes through the general category. So, there are pros and cons of availing reservation.

I will give you an example of a student who secured 90 per cent marks and had opted for B.Com honours in one of the prestigious colleges of Delhi. She could not get an admission there and came to me to complain. I would not like to take the name of that college though. Straight away I gave her admission in Gargi College, not under disabled category, but under general category. I opened up my door here so that her wheelchair could be wheeled in, created a small ramp and brought her class to the ground floor. Otherwise, all B.Com classes are held on the third floor. I made it mandatory to have her classes on ground floor for next three years.

However, I am not in position to comment on what the principals of Hindu or Hansraj would do.

Q: Apart from admissions, what about problems related to basic access? None of the colleges in Delhi University are accessible. What is Studentsí Welfare Office doing about it?

I agree the colleges havenít been constructed keeping disabled students in mind. However, the fact is that there is lack of funds with UGC and unless funds trickle in colleges cannot reconstruct disabled-friendly architecture.

Now, UGC is in the process of making the central library, the Arts Faculty and one of the hostels disabled-friendly. It was decided about six months ago.

Moreover, there was a plan to make colleges disabled-friendly too. I am sure the letters havenít reached all the colleges, otherwise things would have been done by now.

Q: If you are talking about doing something, then letís point out a harsh reality that not a single college has a disabled-friendly toilet. How would you, both as the dean of Studentsí Welfare and as dean of Gargi College, like to respond?

I agree that is a very shameful thing. Colleges do not have surplus funds. We donít even have enough funds for our salaries. We depend on UGC for funds very heavily.

Q: Even when reconstruction is taking place, say, for the canteen or the toilet in Hindu College, disability is the last thing the college authorities have in mind. Why is it like that? Moreover, when there is a law, then why hasnít information been disseminated among the deans of various colleges about the rights of disabled students?

I cannot talk on behalf of other deans, but I guess it takes time for people to reconsider the problems of disabled people. Actually, the problems of disabled people havenít even registered in the minds of millions of Indians. Not a single bus in this country is disabled-friendly. Only Delhi Metro is accessible. Do they have ramps in the buses in Delhi? In USA, thousands of disabled people travel by buses that have a ramp.

It will take some time to sensitise people on disability. Unfortunately, you cannot be emotional about it. You have to be very practical about it.

Q: Are you practically doing anything on sensitising DU staff, or students about the issue of disability?

No, but then every college has a social service unit. We expect these students to create awareness among others, as these students will work with various NGOs in the country.

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