On June 30, 2020, the Deputy Manager of a state tourist facility in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh beat up a disabled woman colleague when she insisted that he wear a mask. There was physical violence coupled with immense mental trauma for the employee concerned. She lodged a police complaint and the offending official was arrested, though not under the offences and penal provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPD Act, 2016).

The very next day, in an unconnected but ironically related development, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD), Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment uploaded a notice on their website proposing certain amendments to the RPD Act, 2016. The proposed amendments related to the offences and penal provisions contained in Sections 89, 92(a) and 93 of the Act. The government invited observations, suggestions and comments from NGOs and disabled persons’ organizations (DPOs).

Quote: The process adopted by the DEPwD was exclusionary, as only a few Delhi-based organizations were intimated about the notice. But the Act itself mandates the participation of DPOs across disabilities and states in any decisions to be taken that concern persons with disabilities. The government’s move also undermined the principle of full and effective participation of all persons with disabilities in society. This is one of the guiding principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.The process adopted by the DEPwD was exclusionary, as only a few Delhi-based organizations were intimated about the notice. But the RPD Act, 2016 mandates the participation of DPOs across disabilities and states in any decisions to be taken that concern persons with disabilities. The government’s move also undermined the principle of full and effective participation of all persons with disabilities in society. This is one of the guiding principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Gross disrespect for marginalized people by the State

In the current emergency-like situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, the government has not only been ignoring the miserable condition of vulnerable communities but also infringing on their human rights in the name of ‘national interest’. While many states have suspended labour laws, the central government has been surreptitiously pushing in amendments to human rights laws in the garb of ‘promoting economic rejuvenation’.

The changes that were proposed to the RPD Act, 2016 related mostly to the section on offences and penalties, wherein contraventions of the provisions are punishable largely through fines. The provisions listed for change included ‘humiliating or insulting a person with disability in public’ and ‘failure to furnish information as mandated by the law’.

The proposed amendments were sought to be justified on the grounds that certain omissions were not necessarily fraudulent or the outcome of mala fide intent, and criminalizing them would become a big hurdle in attracting investments for the post-lockdown economic revival. The ministry note further contended that uncertainty in legal processes and the time taken for resolution in the courts impacted ease of doing business and business sentiment, and hindered investments both from domestic and foreign investors. Decriminalization of the penalties would also propagate the central government’s objective of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’.

Attracting investments, but at what cost?

The proposed amendments did not specify the meaning, content, context and nature of ‘minor offence’, or its opposite ‘serious offence’. By deliberately choosing to leave the definition vague, it sought to legitimize an entire range of discriminatory behaviours and actions, which have been laid out in the RPD Act, 2016 in consonance with the UNCRPD. When questioned, a ministry official said that while fraud was a serious offence, insults could be classified as minor. But insults can be subjective in nature and who is to decide which insults are grave and which are not? What such a biased argument really ignores is that disability-based discrimination includes both systemic exclusion like discriminatory admission or human resource policies as well as everyday practices of exclusion, shaming and humiliation. While these discriminations may seem minor to business entities, they can be real and distressful for persons with disabilities who actually experience them.

In effect, the amendments were meant to allow business houses and domestic and foreign investors to perpetuate discrimination against persons with disabilities, pay paltry fines and get away with it. There would be little recourse to justice for persons with disabilities. What was striking about the government logic was that India was willing to waive off the equal opportunity policies for persons with disabilities instead of asking businesses to adhere to such progressive rules to ensure greater socio-economic inclusion of the marginalized.

Quote: In effect, the amendments were meant to allow business houses and domestic and foreign investors to perpetuate discrimination against persons with disabilities, pay paltry fines and get away with it. There would be little recourse to justice for persons with disabilities. What was striking about the government logic was that India was willing to waive off the equal opportunity policies for persons with disabilities instead of asking businesses to adhere to such progressive rules to ensure greater socio-economic inclusion of the marginalized.Here, it is necessary to raise the issue of accountability in terms of sharing data. The RPD Act, 2016 requires all businesses, including private sector firms, to furnish data on the inclusion of disabled people in employment. Exempting certain businesses from this requirement is the same as permitting malpractices in the name of ease of doing business. As it is that the rate of employment among people with disabilities in the employable age is abysmal, and the corporate sector has a long way to go in ensuring inclusion of disabled people in the workforce.

Civil society response to stall amendments

When the RPD Act, 2016 became a reality, the disability rights movements in India welcomed this long-awaited law that was UNCRPD compliant. But the government’s move to disempower citizens was a letdown at a critical moment of distress for the entire country. Indeed, the government’s forcible infliction of the label of divyangjan for persons with disabilities some years back seemed appropriate! It seemed eager to leave disabled people to the mercy of god and absolve itself of all responsibility towards the citizens of the Indian nation. Thankfully, many of the citizens were alert and responded with alacrity.

For once, the fledgling disability rights movements in India responded to the government’s move together, forging bonds of tenuous unity among disability groups across the country. While people from different impairment categories often are at opposing ends of certain debates, the proposed amendments brought together various national and local level groups who collectively opposed the move. Showing unprecedented solidarity, protest letters, online petitions and even online meetings were organized, which forced the ministry to withdraw the proposed amendments even before the consultative process was over.

At present, there is jubilation among the different players, but the disability rights movements need to keep engaging in dialogue and discourse with each other, as well as with movements of other marginalized groups. They must ensure that threats to the full enjoyment of rights of persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups are not entertained. With the current government clearly seeking to infringe upon and dilute the rights-based frameworks that address all vulnerable communities, collectively or singly, a solidarity-based front needs to be developed to meet the challenges ahead.

About the main photograph: A rally organized in Kolkata on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, 2019 (photograph is representative in nature). Photo courtesy Disability Activists Forum WB, Kolkata