CHENNAI: Prayer, Petition and Protest’. In the initial phase of India’s freedom struggle, leaders of the nationalist movement espoused these 3 P’s as it was believed that the British would be responsive to this approach.
Fast forward to present day, we have persons with disabilities (PwDs) who are now increasingly resorting to the third ‘P’ — Protest — to get what they believe is their rightful and legally-sanctioned due from public authorities. The agitation in February, which saw the gathering of few hundred PWDs in front of Ezhilagam, a government complex on Kamaraj Salai, is the latest in a series of such demonstrations in the recent past. Will these protests be the new norm or should they be an exception?
“Not that the first two P’s were bypassed,” begins TMN Deepak, founder of the December 3rd Movement, one of the four organisations behind last month’s demonstration. “We are out on the streets because there has been complete apathy of officials. Protest is the voice of the unheard,” he says.
Deepak alleges that despite the provision of a coordination committee in every State, and an apex body to decide on comprehensive policies about PwDs in the Persons with Disabilities Act (1995), such a committee has not been constituted in Tamil Nadu for the past six years. “Even after a Madras High Court order in January 2015 directing the State government to set up the panel within a month, it was yet to be formed. As a result, policy decisions regarding social security schemes, as envisaged in the act suffer,” he explains.
Significantly, the non-constitution of the coordination committee, as well as the State executive committee, which implements the policies taken by the former, was flagged by a 2013 report of the National Human Rights Commission, which dealt with the implementation of the PWD Act in TN.
Meenakshi Balasubramanian, of Equals-Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, opines that protests become inevitable because of the continued administrative silence. She cites her own example of approaching one of the government departments with a proposal. “For the past two years, I have been only hearing that my proposal would be looked into.”
The agitation in February led to the State government revising the eligibility criteria for availing disability allowance (from 60% to 40%), besides dropping the term ‘destitute’ as a necessary condition for pension schemes. But Meenakshi says, “Remedial measures taken after every protest needs to be arrived at earlier. It is possible only if our decision-making process is pluralistic in terms of participation from the community.”
Meanwhile, the unfortunate death of senior citizen Kuppuswamy at the agitation has led to calls by rights activists that protests be undertaken only as a last resort. While there is consensus that ‘Dharna’ as a tool must be ultimately resorted to, when every other approach has failed, Smitha Sadasivan of Disability Rights Alliance doubts its efficacy.
Citing a recent mass campaign which led to Union Minister Maneka Gandhi retracting from her alleged statement that “If a person is mentally ill with schizophrenia, how can he be given a job?”, Smitha says the problem with the society today is attitudinal in nature. “The best way is to put across our rightful demands and concerns in a way they (public authorities) understand as well. Perhaps if they have a person with disability in their family, they will show some urgency.”
‘Committed to PwD Welfare’
Amid the growing number of protests by the PwD community, K Manivasan, the State commissioner for the disabled avers that Tamil Nadu is one of the few states that is committed to the community welfare. There have been strong reactions from the community about the State’s failure to form a coordination committee for their welfare, but officials insist that the committee has been formed, but is yet to be convened.
“The committee mostly consists of ex-officio members like the commissioner for welfare of the disabled, secretaries of government departments and minister in charge of social welfare department. The proposal to include other representatives (from PwDs and NGOs) was finalised earlier, but due to the upcoming elections, the committee couldn’t be convened,” an official explained. Officials also acknowledged that freedom of expression, in any form including protests, is a democratic right, officials at the State commissionerate say they act on demands based on its merit. “Our State government is one of the few in the country to be committed to supporting them. A lot of initiatives have been taken to uplift their standard of life and most of them have been taken before any demands or representations by individuals or organisations,” said Manivasan.
College students and graduates with visual disability, who qualified in TET (Teachers Eligibility Test), went on a hunger strike demanding job in government institutions. There were many vacancies in government schools and colleges, and none were being offered to the PwDs
Members of Tamil Nadu Association for the Rights of All Types of Differently Abled and Caregivers protest at several places against a government order that said pension allowance would be given only to those who were ‘destitute’
Multiple Sclerosis Society of India, Chennai Chapter, stages protest to include MS as a multiple disability in the Rights of PWDs Bill
Four disability rights groups stage protest at Ezhilagam, demanding relaxation of norms for monthly allowance and for job quotas
Action After Protests
After members of the Federation of Tamil Nadu Differently Abled Persons staged a sit-in at the Southern Railway headquarters in 2013, orders were issued to prevent other passengers and railway staff from using compartments and parking spaces allotted for PwD commuters
Fulfilling the demands of PwD graduates, the State government in October 2013 announced a TET for visually challenged graduates
Following recent agitations in February this year, the percentage of disability required for getting monthly financial assistance was reduced from 60% to 40%. Further, the ‘destitute’ condition for monthly assistance was waived