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Legal profession was only way to make difference, says first blind senior advocate

Over the last four decades, Rungta has been at the forefront for fighting for the rights of people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

Santosh Kumar Rungta.

“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer since I was nine,” says 68-year old senior advocate Santosh Kumar Rungta, who has been visually impaired since childhood. “It was in the third standard that I decided that if I ever want to make some difference in the life of the blind the only profession to achieve this is the legal profession. I studied with this single focus in mind.”

Rungta made the news last week when Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud told the senior advocate, who was appearing in a matter related to the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission, that he will ask the National Informatics Centre to work with him on making the court’s software disabled-friendly.

There is a reason the CJI sought his assistance. Over the last four decades, Rungta has been at the forefront for fighting for the rights of people with visual impairments and other disabilities. He was made a senior advocate in 2011 by the Delhi High Court, the first blind lawyer to receive this designation.

His work in court for those with visual impairments began in 1993, when he argued in the Supreme Court — and won — for allowing blind and partially blind candidates to write UPSC exams in Braille or with the help of a scribe. On October 8, 2013, it was in a case argued by him that the apex court directed the government to implement three per cent reservation for disabled persons in government jobs. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Rungta moved the Delhi High Court challenging the non-inclusion of persons with disabilities in the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and the National Food Security Act.

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Born to a business family in Kanpur, Rungta says that he had difficulty in his eyes since birth. “I have had glaucoma since birth. This resulted in a situation that I could not see in any kind of light and my eyes had to be covered,” Rungta says. After losing his father when he was barely two years old, Rungta soon realised that he was treated differently by those around him.

“The attitude of business families is that if I could be a potential contributor to the business then one could consider giving me a status at a later stage. At a very early age, whatever I could gather from hearing from my family members, I realised that there was some kind of charity approach in their behaviour towards me,” Rungta says, adding that it was this approach that “created a sharp reaction” within him. “This was a trigger for me. I knew I had to do something to be independent,” he says.

In 1960, when Rungta was six years old he was admitted at Modern School for Blind Children, Dehradun, a residential special school by one of his elder brothers. He says that some of the teachers at the school focussed on “individualised teaching” which he greatly appreciates.

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Rungta completed his LLB from Kanpur in 1978 from Dayanand College of Law and in the same year became the All-India General Secretary of National Federation of Blind at the age of 24. “Since the headquarters of the federation were in Delhi and I was the chief office bearer it was my responsibility to look after the federation and that’s how I landed in Delhi. I also decided to continue my legal studies and pursued LLM from Delhi University’s Law Faculty,” he explains.

After enrolling with the Bar Council of Delhi in 1982 Rungta had initially thought of going back to Kanpur to practice. “I had booked my tickets and I was paying one last visit to then Delhi Development Commissioner SC Vajpayee who had been helpful in our effort to ensure employment for the blind in the Delhi government. It was he who insisted that I start my practice in Delhi and through his help I was empanelled “gaon sabha” cases under Delhi Land Reform Act,” Rungta says. He recalls that his first case pertained to the encroachment of farmer’s land by zamindars wherein he was asked to argue to seek interim relief for the farmers. Rungta argued the case before a Justice Wadh of the Delhi High Court knowing fully well that the petition filed was ‘defective’ and poorly drafted. He says: “I was asked at the outset by the bench, ‘Is this the right way of drafting, why should I not throw it out’. I told the judge that I had not drafted the petition to which he asked me to point out the defects in the petition. I was very happy as I knew all of them…when I reached the seventh defect, the judge asked me to stop and heard me and I got interim relief.” Rungta was only 28 when he secured interim relief in his first case.

Having relied on braille notes all his life, Rungta believes that although technological advancements have helped visually impaired lawyers immensely, one cannot completely depend on technology while appearing before courts. “Just last week I was appearing in a matter and I realised that my braille notetaker did not switch on. I was next to argue and I luckily had the hard copy of my braille notes as backup,” he explains, adding that his speed of reading also becomes slower as compared to reading hard braille copy where the lines are longer.

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He had some hiccups in his interaction with the courts. Rungta is reminded of an incident in the Delhi HC before a single judge bench where his matter was dismissed without him having uttered a word. “It didn’t happen once but five times. I can’t say with certainty what the reason was, but else could it be?”

In another incident, there was a very open assertion by the bench in one of the lower courts — who refused to recognise him as an advocate because of blindness. “I was told that how could I be recognised as an advocate, when I can’t identify the signature and so questioned my competence on accepting the vakalatnama,” he says.

These incidents aside, Rungta has had a flourishing practice since the past four decades. He says that he has had visually impaired juniors in the past and is open to more in the future. When asked how he faces everyday challenges while appearing in court, Rungta explains that he always keeps his “ears towards where the bench sits”.

“I don’t rely on my juniors to ascertain whether the judge has entered the courtroom. I listen to what is happening in the court. I try to understand if the court master is talking, if the lawyers in the courtroom–these are things that I picked up over the years, especially when I did not have infrastructure to me,” Rungta says.

On the improvement of infrastructure in courts to make them more disabled-friendly, Rungta says that when it comes to mobility requirements for visually impaired persons, human assistance and walking sticks are the most useful. Though ramps are useful for the physically disabled, the construction of pathways with blocks for visually impaired persons sometimes causes more trouble for people that can see. “What is really needed is e-courts to become compatible with softwares used by visually impaired lawyers. PDF files should be compatible for us. We still don’t have sign interpreters for hearing impaired lawyers. For blind witnesses appearing in cases, braille printers should be provided so that they can read their statements and affirm their signatures as required,” he suggests.

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Rungta’s lives with his wife, Sushma Rungta, who retired as director at the Lok Sabha Secretariat . While his son 33-year old Aviral runs his own business, his daughter, 37-year old Pratiti Rungta, is also an independent advocate practising electricity and debt recovery tribunal matters.

For aspiring visually impaired lawyers, Rungta had this to say: “There is no better profession for them than the legal profession. But they need to have the attitude and the commitment to succeed. They need to be patient, selective in their first case, put in extra labour, use technology but avoid becoming over dependent and keep abreast of all laws. If they follow this they are bound to succeed. It may take them longer than those who can see, but they will eventually.”

First published on: 28-11-2022 at 04:10 IST
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