Kolkata, June 3, 2017: A meeting was organized today by Sruti Disability Rights Centre to analyse the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPD Act, 2016). Held at the West Bengal Voluntary Health Association premises, it attracted participants from diverse fields of pursuit. In the true spirit of ensuring access and inclusion, the organizers made available both print and Braille copies of the Act.

The discussion sessions were arranged in two phases. In the first, Shampa Sengupta, founder member of Sruti Disability Rights Centre, focussed on the journey of the ‘movement’ that made possible the enactment of the new legislation. In the second part of the meeting, Dr. Rukmini Sen, Associate Professor at the Ambedkar University Delhi took up a detailed textual analysis of the Act.

Photograph shows a discussion on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 in progress. In a long shot across the meeting room, about 16 people (a mix of different genders) can be seen seated in groups of three or four around circular tables. One person to the far left side seems to be sharing an opinion or asking a question and all others are listening to the person. Each of the tables are covered with maroon table cloths, and pens, note pads, other papers and bottles of water can be seen on the tables. The meeting room is not very large, and is lit up with both natural light coming through a window and electric lights. On the far side, there is an exit door. There is also a striking abstract art painting on a wall, next to it a wall-mounted television, and above them a large old clock. An air-conditioner and wall-mounted fan can also be seen on the adjacent walls. Photo credit: Abhirupa Kar

Shampa Sengupta commented on the importance of understanding the history of the RPD Act, 2016. She traced the journey since the appearance of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, pointed out its major shortcomings that necessitated the demand for its amendment, finally leading to the demand for a new legislation.

She drew attention to some of the major events in the journey towards the RPD Act, 2016 – how the demand for a new law emerged, India’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in October 2007, the formation of the Sudha Kaul Committee in 2010 and the formulation of several drafts of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPD) Bill.

Having briefly explained the political climate of the country in which the RPD Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in February 2014, she commented on the initial reluctance of the present central government to encourage any meaningful discussion on the Bill. This ultimately led to the demand of ‘Bring Back RPD Bill‘ in the later part of 2016.

A point quite emphatically put forward in the first phase of the meeting was that disability was “a political issue” and it needed to be understood as such if we wished to move away from the charity model of addressing disability issues. Shampa Sengupta repeatedly mentioned the necessity of recording the histories and stories of struggles that took place in different parts of the country, which finally culminated in the emergence of the RPD Act, 2016.

Dr. Rukmini Sen drew upon the preceding discussion to emphasize that the RPD Act, 2016 was at one level a culmination of a long and difficult journey. But in turn it also constituted “the starting point” of another journey of discourses, experiences, activisms and movements.

Quote: Dr. Rukmini Sen emphasized that the RPD Act, 2016 was at one level a culmination of a long and difficult journey. But in turn it also constituted “the starting point” of another journey of discourses, experiences, activisms and movements.She said that the history of the 1995 legislation was to some extent a limited one, primarily reflecting the disability movements preceding 1995 and led by the communities of visually disabled persons. The 2016 legislation, on the other hand, was far more politicized and interacted with the larger context of women’s rights movements, debates around sexuality, gender and family, and issues concerning children.

In order to understand the impact of the RPD Act, 2016 on everyday reality, it was necessary to discuss how it contradicted and / or converged with the language, philosophy, provisions and objectives of other laws of the country.

Dr. Rukmini Sen pointed out that though the Act declared the UNCRPD to be its “legal basis”, for her this was true only in “a very narrow sense” of the term. While attempting to plot the points, mentioned in the introductory section of the Act (the ‘Preamble’), she identified three key concepts constituting its foundational philosophy, that is, ‘dignity’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘non-discrimination’ and it was in light of these that many features of the law should be analyzed.

She explained that though there was no separate chapter on women with disabilities in the Act, questions concerning women, children, reproduction, family and care-givers were repeatedly raised and addressed in the Act. It was remarkable that in this Act, the idea of community and community life of disabled persons was regarded with particular importance.

When seen in the global political context of the demand for human rights, the Act’s references to ‘difference’ and ‘human diversity’ stood out quite significantly. Interestingly, while in the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995, the first substantive chapter was titled “Prevention and Early Detection”, in the RPD Act of 2016, it was changed to “Rights and Entitlements”. This was a significant shift, even if not a seamless one, towards a social and rights-based approach to disability.

In the section on definitions in the RPD Act, 2016, attempts to articulate the experiences of persons with disabilities were made from three different but interconnected perspectives. Definitions of “person with disability”, “person with benchmark disability” and “person with disability having high support needs” were clearly based on the principles of social model, medical model and experiential realities of disabled persons, respectively.

The discussion also looked at the categorization of disabilities in the RPD Act, 2016. While this was in acknowledgement of the fact that disability could have diverse forms, Shampa Sengupta pointed out that it was ground reality that had necessitated the creation of a schedule of specific disabilities in the Act. Moreover, it was essential to comprehend the politics of categorizing disabilities in order to realize the practical implementation of the law.

This photograph is a close shot of the two speakers of the meeting – Dr. Rukmini Sen (Assistant Professor, Ambedkar University Delhi) and Shampa Sengupta (founder of Sruti Disability Rights Centre) – seated behind a long table meant for presenters. They are looking at each other and conversing. Dr. Rukmini Sen is holding on to a pen, while Shampa Sengupta has a bottle of water in her left hand. A few documents and other personal items are placed on the table before them. Photo credit: Abhirupa Kar

Shampa Sengupta (right) in conversation with Dr. Rukmini Sen

Shampa Sengupta and Anirban Mukherjee, who represented Paschimbanga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani, problematized and critiqued Section 3(3) of the Act and expressed anxiety about the possibilities of its misuse. The section states: “No person with disability shall be discriminated on the ground of disability, unless it is shown that the impugned act or omission is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.” It was argued that ‘legitimate aim’ as a concept was arbitrary and open to misuse.

The Act considered “protection from experiences like torture, cruelty, degrading or inhuman treatment, abuse, violence and exploitation” and “protection and safety in situations of risk, armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters”. Shampa Sengupta mentioned that it was good that the chapters on torture, cruelty, abuse and violence were gender neutral as both men and women with disabilities experienced them.

In another part of the Act, it was mentioned that the appropriate government and local authorities shall “promote various methods for preventing disabilities.” Again, anxiety was expressed by some of the participants that this clause ran the risk of getting extended to and interpreted as “the prevention of the birth of a disabled foetus.”

There was discussion around the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act and Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act and Soma Sen Gupta from Sanhita Gender Resource Centre said that at this juncture women’s groups and disability groups must talk and deliberate on the issue of abortion of disabled foetuses.

Shampa Sengupta concluded the meeting by observing that the RPD Act, 2016, a long time in the making, largely succeeded in capturing the issues concerning and affecting grass root realities. She said “It is our duty and responsibility to ensure a just and appropriate implementation of this Act. This is a big challenge and needs to be taken up in united fashion.”

All photo credits: Abhirupa Kar (photographs show the meeting on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 in progress)