Interview

Volume 4 Issue 3 - February 01, 2006

National Policy for Disabled People is more a compilation of programmes than a policy: Amita Dhanda

Consultation with persons with disability has never been an article of faith or an integral component of government policy. It has always been something, which persons with disability have wrested from the government. The consultative fiasco on the National Policy is one more example of state authoritarianism in the field, says Dr. Amita Dhanda, disability law expert, in conversation with Parvinder Singh.

1. It has been ten years since The Disability Act was passed. How do you assess the status of Act vis-à-vis its implementation and awareness?

When you ask a question of this kind you presumably ask it from the standard of 100% awareness and implementation. Now this is a standard from which there shall always be a shortfall in reality. However if we do not set up such an impossibly high standard, we could say that both on the awareness and the implementation scale, the Act has done reasonably well. Possibly better on the awareness scale than the implementation one. This is a happy situation because the moment people are aware of their rights they exert pressure on those who are responsible for implementation to do their duty. And this implementation has been obtained in the Disability Act both by directly requiring appropriate governments to do their duty and by seeking the help of the Courts to make the governments to fulfil their responsibilities. In fact the receptiveness of the Courts has substantially contributed to increasing the pressure on governments to do their duty under the Act. Please note I am saying ‘has increased pressure’ because are many a situation where governments have continued to drag their feet even after the order of the Court. A case in point is the judgement of the Bombay High Court asking the Department of Health, Government of Maharashtra asking the government to restore the service of a nurse who had been discharged after acquiring psychiatric disability. The Government till date has neither restored her service nor paid her back wages and this when the Bombay High Court had clearly asked them to do both.

2. The Amendments to the Disability Act have not moved ahead since they were proposed. Please share with us the urgency of adopting these amendments. Is there a need to re-look into these and prepare a new set of recommendations?

The Amendment Committee was set up in August 1998. It submitted an interim report in December 1998 and a final report in March 1999. These time frames were kept because the then Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment had made promises of early if not immediate implementation. Unfortunately the report was consigned to the proverbial cold storage and I do believe has been overtaken by events and time. Whilst there are many a recommendations in the report that would survive the test of time, there are others, which require to be reconsidered. Ideally it would be correct to re-examine the recommendations and to bring them in accord with current developments. However such a review should be time bound so that the review does not become an excuse for not acting on the legitimate suggestions of the Amendment Committee.

3. The Union Cabinet recently approved the National Policy for Disabled People. The consultative process before the framing of the policy had come under severe criticism from the disability sector for being undemocratic and incomprehensive. What are your views on the policy and this criticism?

I think there is a need here to distinguish between a policy and programmes. The National Policy for Disabled People is more a compilation of programmes for disability than a policy. The programmes have been devised depending on what the non-disabled world thinks is required for persons with disability-- a perspective which is inherently faulty. Consultation with persons with disability has never been an article of faith or an integral component of government policy. It has always been something, which persons with disability have wrested from the government. The consultative fiasco on the National Policy is one more example of state authoritarianism in the field.

4. Policy makers have so far neglected people with mental disabilities. Do you feel that the disability advocacy movement has also been responsible in pushing mental health to the periphery?

We have a saying in Hindi that you cannot get milk from even your mother without crying. The voicelessness of persons with mental disabilities and here one would include both intellectual and psychosocial disabilities have definitely contributed to the neglect of the rights of this group. This is also because there is a prejudicial stereotype which subsists against persons with mental disabilities and for that stereotype to be displaced, it is important that there should be direct interaction with persons with mental disability. You have here a catch 22 situation. The stigma which subsists against persons with mental disabilities silences and isolates them and yet if this stereotype has to be displaced, it is imperative for them to speak up.

5. What do you think would be the long-term impact of the passage of the UN International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities? What would be the implications for a developing country like India?

An international Convention unlike a national scheme or programme puts down a set of principles, such as recognition, protection, and promotion of rights of persons with disabilities. These principles would provide a whole new perspective of approaching Disability Rights. And this aspirational agenda of the Convention, if adopted, should slowly revolutionise governmental approaches towards persons with disabilities.

6. What has been the stance of Government of India so far on the UN Convention?

The Government of India has adopted the line that it will fulfill its responsibility vis-à-vis persons with disability without international prompting. Hence it has adopted a most conservative stance in the United Nations. The stance has been prompted by the need to ward off international oversight rather than what the government believes should or should not be done for persons with disability. The importance the state accords to the Convention can also be deduced from the size of the State delegation to the negotiations. The Government of India has been sending single member delegations and this solo membership has been shared between the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Legal and Treaties Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. And this is the case when small countries like Kenya are sending 6-7 member strong delegation.

7. So far there has been little agreement on the placement and inclusion of women with disabilities as a separate category in the Draft Convention. What is your view on this?

The matter is still under deliberation. There is a strong Women’s Caucus, which has been lobbying for a twin track approach that is both mainstreaming of gender into several articles and a separate article. The view is starting to gain strength; hence it cannot be said which way the Ad Hoc Committee will decide ultimately. I personally favour the twin track approach.

8. To what extent are disabled people themselves involved in drafting of this Convention? What monitoring and implementation mechanisms are proposed in the Draft?

The involvement of disabled people is revolutionary if seen in the context of International law making. The General Assembly in its resolution had asked for the involvement of disabled people and this has resulted in Disabled People Organizations being an integral part of the Convention making process. They have been sitting around the table with State parties continually indicating what is or is not acceptable to them in the Convention. The comprehensive response on the Chairs text by the International Disability Caucus (I.D.C.) is one more example of this informed involvement. The I.D.C. response has in the current negotiations become the touchstone of legitimacy for State proposals. The monitoring mechanisms both international and national are still being deliberated upon. The Ad Hoc Committee is still examining various proposals. It is hoped that the Chair of the Committee will come up with a working text in the next few days.

9. Does the Convention have any penal clauses if the governments fail to implement it?

International censure is the usual penalty when governments fail to fulfill an international obligation. However it is not possible to answer this question because the text for the provision on monitoring has not even been proposed let alone settled.

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