Disability Inclusion: How far are we from a Sugamya and Saksham Bharat?

By Shruti Pushkarna

In his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was applauded for path-breaking campaigns like Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojana, Sugamya Bharat, Ujjwala Yojana and so on. The promise of ‘inclusion’ for larger sections of the Indian population gave the country hope for a better tomorrow, or ‘Acchhe Din’.


Having been sidelined and neglected for decades, the disabled community felt vindicated with the announcement of the Accessible India movement in 2015. Finally, the lack of ‘access’ was acknowledged at a national level. In a move to dignify their existence, PM Modi also coined a new term, ‘divyangjan’ or divine being replacing the demeaning usage of ‘viklang’ or handicapped.


Furthermore, the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016 was celebrated as a landmark moment. Repealing the 1995 Act, the new legislation included 21 types of disabilities, with a view to empower and enable as opposed to a dependence on mere handouts.


Often persons with disabilities face entry-level barriers in education and employment. The reasons could vary, discrimination, poor financial condition, ignorance or inaccessibility. And that adversely impacts their social and financial standing, mis-shaping the general societal perception.


The RPWD Act 2016 introduced new sections, providing rights and entitlements to ensure barrier free access to the physical infrastructure as well as to information and communication technologies (ICT). Four per cent reservation in government jobs, equal opportunity policy for private establishments in addition to incentives for recruiting at least five per cent disabled employees, and extending the right to free education to every disabled child between the age group of 6 and 18 years, are some of the pertinent steps to level out the playing field.


With all these initiatives and asseverations, one would assume all is hunky-dory. Except it’s not.


The leadership seems to have mastered the art of utopian announcements. Spinning yarns ridden with lopsided statistics, they have created a false picture of progress to sway voters. The ground reality is not as idyllic as the written word. Red tapism, absence of coordination between departments and ministries as well as Central and State governments, creates roadblocks in implementation.


Unique Disability ID (UDID) is a case in point. The UDID portal, swavlambancard.gov.in was launched in 2016 with the intent of creating a national database of persons with disabilities (PwDs) and also to ensure easy access to schemes and benefits. As opposed to a state issued Disability Certificate, UDID is valid pan-India, which enables PwDs to avail government provisions without producing multiple documents.


But the rollout has been shoddy. As of March 2021, 54.84 lakh UDIDs have been issued against nearly 1.66 crore Disability Certificates. Across states, disabled folk face challenges in online application, medical verification from district hospitals, tracking the issuance status, editing wrongly registered details on printed IDs et cetera. Even after completing all the steps in registration, thousands of PwDs haven’t received their cards. See tweet below.


A tweet stating UDID applied in 2016 has still not been received


From June 1, 2021, the Centre notified for all disability certificates to be issued online. “The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD), Government of India has issued Gazette notification SO 1736(E) dated 05.05.2021 making it mandatory for all States/UTs to grant certificate of disability through online mode only using UDID portal w.e.f. 01.06.2021.”


The notification conveniently puts the onus on the States and local hospitals at a time when they are preoccupied with administering vaccines and managing Covid-19. How does the Centre plan to achieve the desired digitisation when the online process so far has been moving slower than molasses?


Just last week, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment issued a notification exempting all posts under the Indian Police Service and Indian Railway Protection Force from the provision of four per cent reserved quota for persons with benchmark disabilities. This goes against Section 34 of RPWD Act 2016 which states that “the appropriate Government, in consultation with the Chief Commissioner or the State Commissioner, as the case may be, may, having regard to the type of work carried out in any Government establishment, by notification and subject to such conditions, if any, as may be specified in such notifications exempt any Government establishment from the provisions of this section.”


In this case, only the posts for combatant roles should be exempt from reservation. Interestingly, a separate notification issued on the same day by the Ministry distinguishes between combatant and non-combatant roles, exempting all combat posts in the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal and the Assam Rifles.


It’s important to note that all reserved posts are based on the jobs identified for PwDs by a specially appointed committee. There are several skilled and unskilled roles under Group A, B, C and D categories, where disabled people can be hired as clerks, technical specialists, engineers, delivery assistants, cleaners, telephone operators, designers etc.


On January 4, 2021 the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities notified 3566 posts in Central Government establishments as suitable for persons with benchmark disabilities, adding 593 new posts to the previous list issued in 2013. The latest detailed list can be seen here: http://disabilityaffairs.gov.in/content/upload/uploadfiles/files/224370.pdf


There are many more examples that point to a lackadaisical approach of the government when it comes to integrating persons with disabilities into the mainstream. While progress has been made on several counts, we need stricter enforcement and execution of policies. Empty sloganeering won’t suffice.


It’s also time for the media to go beyond inspiration porn and focus on consistent hard-hitting coverage of issues facing the disabled population.