Kolkata, May 5, 2019: The Communist Party of India (Marxist) today organized a unique interface with the disability rights community in Kolkata to convey what their manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls had to say about the concerns of persons with disabilities. In what is likely a first of its kind in India, the manifesto, apart from a print version, was also presented in audio format and through sign language (see video on manifesto highlights in sign language here).
The interaction was organized at Maha Bodhi Society Hall in central Kolkata and attracted a small but attentive audience of around 40 people. The audience included persons with different types of disabilities, their family members and allies, social activists, CPI(M) members, and media persons. Professor Nandini Mukherjee and Kaninika Bose Ghosh, CPI(M) candidates for the Kolkata Dakshin and Kolkata Uttar Lok Sabha seats, respectively, were present for the interaction and viewed the sign language presentation of the manifesto with rapt attention (see below).
Among all major political parties in India, the CPI(M) is one of the few that has had a long association with disability rights. Late Sadhan Chandra Gupta (1917-2015), associated with the CPI(M), was the first blind Member of Parliament (MP) in independent India. Ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, CPI(M) was the only political party to have brought out a separate folder on disability issues.
More recently, in 2015, when the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill was being protested vehemently by disability rights activists, CPI(M) MP Sitaram Yechuri took the lead in ensuring that the Bill was referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for further deliberations and improvements.
The sensibility derived from this long engagement with the issue, not in the least because of the untiring advocacy undertaken by disability rights groups and activists, was evident in the party’s manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls (read manifesto here). It covered a comprehensive range of issues – budgetary allocations for and implementation of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and Mental Healthcare Act, 2017; review of National Disability Policy; simplifying and speeding up disability certification procedures; education and employment opportunities; making public spaces, transport and other services fully accessible; availability of sign language interpreters and disability-friendly broadcast media; zero tolerance for abuse of persons with disabilities; and several social protection measures.
As disability rights activist Shampa Sengupta pointed out, “The manifesto doesn’t ‘label’ persons with disabilities and limit them to just one page or section; rather it integrates disability with other human development concerns. Disability issues find a mention throughout the manifesto, including in the sections concerning children, women, protection from sexual abuse, food security, and senior citizens and pensions.”
Sumanta Ghosh (standing to the left below the podium in the main photograph on top) is associated with a disability rights network – he spoke about the poor socio-economic opportunities for persons with disabilities. He said, “I’ve tried approaching many government bodies, but there’s been little help and even lesser availability of funds for creating opportunities for us.”
Anirban Mukherjee, an Executive Committee member of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) and active CPI(M) member, said there was a need to democratize the sports structures in India for para-athletes. He said, “Players must be involved in decision making processes, as in the case of other sports.” Several medal-winning Indian para-athletes present in the audience cheered in response.
Professor Nandini Mukherjee remarked that, if elected, she would make it a priority to push for the implementation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. She said she would work to make easy access to educational opportunities, public spaces and publications in Braille a reality.
Kaninika Bose Ghosh claimed that CPI(M) was the only political party voicing the concerns of persons with disabilities, and said that her priority too would be on promoting access for persons with disabilities in Kolkata. Her statement was not unjustified since most of the other major political parties seem to have been silent on disability issues. Speakers at the interaction said the central government’s much acclaimed ‘Accessible India Campaign’ had little to show in terms of concrete progress.
The crucial issue remains that disability rights cannot be the concern of only one or two political parties. It has to become an integral part of the development dialogue in India. One hopes that the example set by CPI(M) will be emulated across party lines.
About the main photo: Sumanta Ghosh (standing to the left below the podium), who is associated with a disability rights network in Kolkata, makes a point during the interaction organized by CPI(M) on May 5, 2019. On the podium are Professor Ishita Mukhopadhyay, faculty at the University of Calcutta (standing and furthest away); Anirban Mukherjee, Executive Committee member of the NPRD and CPI(M) member (partially hidden); Kaninika Bose Ghosh, Kolkata Uttar Lok Sabha election candidate; and Professor Nandini Mukherjee, Kolkata Dakshin Lok Sabha election candidate (closest to the camera). Photo credit: Rith Das