India @ 75, Looking at 100: Let’s walk together

March 14, 2023 at 1:02 PM

On August 15, 2047, India will turn 100. A hundred years of giant strides to becoming the world’s largest democracy and an economic superpower. Morgan Stanley, one of the most influential companies in the world, said last year that three megatrends, global offshoring, digitalisation and energy transition, are setting the scene for India’s unprecedented economic growth. They believe India is set to surpass Japan and Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2027. Whether citizens with disabilities will be part of this glorious narrative and how are points to ponder on.

Today, there are millions of people living with disabilities in India. Census 2011 pegs us at 26.8 million, constituting 2.21 per cent of India’s total population; but activists, academicians and world bodies like the WHO estimate it to be between 40 and 80 million. It is clear that we constitute a significant part of the Indian population and yet remain marginalised and isolated. The question is why.

These are the most favourable times for people with disabilities in India. We have a robust rights-based law, a progressive education policy, NEP 2020, and the Accessible India Campaign. At the same time, the international development agenda says “Leave No One Behind.”

Signed into law in 2016, the historic Rights for Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act gave India its most comprehensive and robust law to protect our rights. This civil rights law is designed to ensure that we have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else by providing an enabling environment and prohibiting discrimination in education, employment, transportation and other aspects of public life. The RPwD Act also increased the quota for disability reservation in higher educational institutions to 5 per cent and in government jobs to 4 per cent. Accessibility has become a right. To create a barrier-free environment for independent, safe and dignified living, the government launched the Accessible India Campaign in 2015.

Yet, in India, people with disabilities have poorer health outcomes, lower education achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty. Women and girls with disabilities are further subjected to multiple layers of discrimination. Unemployment rates are highest among them. Women with disabilities often face disproportionately high rates of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation.

This is perhaps because we are limiting ourselves to only drafting the best laws and policies. Such interventions cannot create an enabling environment by themselves. People with disabilities are fighting cases of non-implementation by several state governments in various high courts. Only by proper implementation and operationalisation of laws and policies can we bring about positive changes in the lives of the disabled in India. To ensure this we need to focus on four things — disaggregated data, accessibility, finances and awareness.

There is a dearth of data on disability and disabled people in India. Data is needed to ascertain the services and finances to be provided. Policymakers and practitioners tend to leave out people with disabilities in various programmes due to the unavailability of data. It is crucial to create and manage disability-specific disaggregated data across sectors of health, education, poverty alleviation, law and order, sports, and culture.

Living in a world not built for us is a huge challenge. Without options to travel freely and independently and use public spaces, people with disabilities will continue to lack access to education, healthcare, employment, housing and systems of social protection. They will continue to face stigma, discrimination and even violence. The principles of “universal design” must be followed to make places, transport, websites, information and processes (meetings, proceedings etc.) accessible.

Budget allocation to disability has been coming down over the years. The best of policies and schemes, unless backed by financial, technical, and human capacity cannot achieve anything. In the 2023-24 budget, the allocation for the scheme for implementation of the RPwD Act has been reduced by Rs 90 crore — from Rs 240.39 (BE) last year to Rs 150 crore. In the last three years, the amount allocated to PwDs, in percentage of GDP, has been declining. In 2020-21, it was 0.0097 per cent of the GDP; in 2021-22, it was 0.0093 per cent of GDP and in 2022-23, it is 0.0084 of the GDP. The Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability’s report has revealed that in the year 2020-21, nearly 35 per cent of the money allotted for schemes related to PwDs was not utilised. Rs 196 crore was unutilised from the funds allocated in FY 2022-2023.

An increasing amount of unutilised funds every year indicates a lack of awareness of the schemes for people with disabilities. Awareness about various schemes for the socio-economic development of persons with disabilities is needed among the intended beneficiaries and government functionaries at the panchayat and village levels.

Stereotypical notions about persons with disabilities being less capable, dependent and helpless cause discrimination. Many myths regarding us being abnormal create fear and mental blocks in the community. Awareness drives are needed to break such myths.

Exclusion of people with disabilities and acts of violence against them hinder economic development, limit democracy, and erode societies. The future of India’s superpower status is dependent upon its capacity to provide opportunities, implement laws equitably and reduce the marginalisation of these unequal citizens. (Indian Express)