What is the Disability Bill about?
The government will bring 119 amendments to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014. The legislation has been pending in Rajya Sabha since February 2014; the term of the UPA government ended soon after it was introduced. The draft legislation is based on the 2010 report of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s expert Sudha Kaul Committee, and will replace the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. The Bill is being brought to comply with the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which India became a signatory in 2007.
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The 1995 Act recognised 7 disabilities — blindness, low vision, leprosy-cured, hearing impairment, locomotor disability, mental retardation and mental illness. The 2014 Bill expanded the definition of disability to cover 19 conditions, including cerebral palsy, haemophilia, multiple sclerosis, autism and thalassaemia among others. The Bill also allowed the central government to notify any other condition as a disability.
The 2011 Census put the number of disabled in India at 2.68 crore, or 2.21% of the population. This a gross underestimation, especially in the light of the proposed amendments, which greatly widen the current Census definition of disability. The Bill makes a larger number of people eligible for rights and entitlements by reason of their disability, and for welfare schemes and reservations in government jobs and education.
What changes have been proposed to the 2014 Bill?
The amended version recognises two other disabilities — resulting from acid attacks and Parkinson’s Disease — taking the number of recognised conditions to 21, and defines each one of them. It makes a special mention of the needs of women and children with disabilities, and lays down specific provisions on the guardianship of mentally ill persons. “The amendments include private firms in the definition of ‘establishments’, which previously referred to only government bodies. All such establishments have to ensure that persons with disabilities are provided with barrier-free access in buildings, transport systems and all kinds of public infrastructure, and are not discriminated against in matters of employment,” said an official from the Ministry of Social Justice.
All these are progressive amendments. Are there any obvious negatives?
The amendments, if passed in their present form, will dilute safeguards provided in the originally proposed Bill. The 1995 law had 3% reservation for the disabled in higher education institutions and government jobs — 1% each for physically, hearing and visually impaired persons. The 2014 Bill raised the ceiling to 5%, adding 1% each for mental illnesses and multiple disabilities. The proposed amendments cut the quota to 4%.
“When a greater number of disabilities are being brought under the purview of the Act, the percentage of reservation should go up proportionately, “ said Muralidharan, secretary, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled.
The proposed amendments do away with the provision in the 2014 Bill for strong National and State Commissions for Persons with Disabilities, with powers on a par with a civil court. They instead continue with the status quo of having only a Chief Commissioner with far fewer powers.
“Several favourable orders given by the Chief Commissioner have been quashed by the courts on the ground that the Commissioner has no powers and is only a quasi-judicial body,” said disability rights activist Dr Satendra Singh. He added that while the proposed amendments rightly recognise a wider range of disabilities, they fail to specify the degree of disability for thalassaemia, learning disabilities or autism. “Moreover, in India there are no suitable tools to quantify autism or learning disabilities,” Dr Singh said.
What if the disability law is violated?
While the existing (1995) Act has no penal provision, the 2014 version made violation of any provision of the Act punishable with a jail term of up to 6 months, and/or a fine of Rs 10,000. Subsequent violations could attract a jail term of up to 2 years and/or a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakh. The amended Bill, however, proposes to remove the jail term entirely, and only keep fines for breaking the law or discriminating against persons with disabilities.
Will the amended law help eliminate discrimination against persons with disabilities?
The proposed amended law defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction on the basis of disability” which impairs or nullifies the exercise on an equal basis of rights in the “political, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. However, it condones such discrimination if “it is shown that the impugned act or omission is a proportionate means of achieving legitimate aim”. Disability rights activists see this rider as paving the way for extreme interpretations.
“The excuse given by the government is that we will cry discrimination if we are denied certain jobs like, say, that of a pilot. However, every job has certain basic requirements, and no person with disability will apply for it unless he or she meets the criteria,” said Muralidharan. CPM MPs K K Ragesh and C P Narayanan are set to move amendments to the Bill asking for this provision to be deleted, and for retaining only the clause, “No person with disability shall be discriminated on the grounds of disability”.