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Towards A New Disability Policy

Updated: July 13, 2013 11:53 am

Census 2011 figures are likely to throw up more accurate figures for disabled population at around 9 crore. But the social justice ministry allocates only 10% of its budget to disability, and there are no moves to review the 2006 national policy

Given the enormous dimensions and complex nature of the problem of disability in India, and the failure of existing policies and programmes to address it adequately, there is urgent need for a re-orientation of the policy framework on the issue. Needless to say, this has to be from a rights-based perspective. It is a sad commentary that despite over six decades of independence and the passage of 18 years since the Persons with Disabilities Act was enacted, the goal of mainstreaming persons with disabilities into society remains a distant dream. A situation made worse by the wide gap in policy formulation and implementation.

The faulty methodology adopted in the 2001 census deprived both stakeholders and policymakers of reliable data on disability in India. The ambiguities, discrepancies and contradictions in data, planning and outlay can be addressed only if we have the right enumeration and data. Hopefully, the 2011 census will come up with figures that are reliable and accurate. In their absence, we can only assume that less than 7-8% of the country’s total population is impaired, either physically, mentally or sensorially. If this yardstick were to be adopted to ascertain the number of people afflicted by various disabilities, it would give us the staggering figure of around 9 crores, of whom 75% or more are concentrated in rural and far-flung backward regions.

Despite a lot of talk in policy circles about empowering the disabled (generally coinciding with the observance of December 3), most of whom are doubly disadvantaged because of their low socio-economic status, the situation at the grassroots is alarming as the overwhelming majority of disabled people in India lie outside the network of government programmes.

A policy statement, as we all know, is a declaration of the government’s intent in implementing a particular programme, towards which end it may bring in legislation, create the requisite infrastructure, etc. Identifying the targeted population, such a document spells out the aims and objectives, resources, infrastructure and broad strategy for implementation of the scheme.

Unfortunately, there was no policy document in place when the PwD Act was adopted in 1995. Eleven years on, realisation dawned, the result of which was the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, 2006. Other disability-specific legislation was also enacted earlier.

There is no doubting the intent, but even when the policy was pronounced it proved inadequate. It lacked a rights-based approach and failed to address many concerns. The policy was, in fact, merely a replica of the PwD Act; it did not contain anything new. In a repeat, the government is in the process of drafting a new law, without having spelt out the new policy.

The 2006 policy document ends with a promise that: ‘Every five years, a comprehensive review will be done on implementation of the national policy. A document indicating status of implementation and a roadmap for five years shall be prepared based on deliberations in the national-level convention. State governments and union territory administrations will be urged to take steps for drawing up state policy and develop action.’

It is seven years since the policy was adopted. If a review is contemplated, it would not only have to go into the drawbacks of the policy but also lacunae in its implementation, and reasons for failures.  A comprehensive review would have to, in the main, address the failure in mainstreaming the disabled; failure to provide education, employment and livelihoods; denial of health services; failure in integration, at removing barriers both attitudinal and societal; and problems of accessibility. Reasons for non-accomplishment of commitments and goals set in the 2006 policy would have to be looked into. The lessons that such a comprehensive review hold should, among other things, contribute to laying the foundation for a new policy.

The 2006 document is based on the medical model and emphasises medical rehabilitation. Not surprisingly therefore, among the issues listed as the focus of the policy statement and intervention, the first two are prevention of disabilities and rehabilitation measures.

In its introduction, the policy says: ‘The Constitution of India ensures equality, freedom, justice and dignity of all individuals and implicitly mandates an inclusive society for all, including persons with disabilities.’

This is actually a myth as far as disabled citizens are concerned as disability does not find a place either in Article 15 (1) or 16 (2) of the Constitution which talk of grounds for non-discrimination.

When the policy document was adopted in 2006, the targeted population was 2.13% (2001 census). This figure is bound to go up substantially as a more scientific methodology of enumeration has been adopted in the 2011 census.

The policy document does not speak of the huge resources needed to achieve the targets spelt out. There have been insufficient allocations and outlay for the sector. Of the total budgetary allocation to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, less than 10% went towards disability. Despite such a huge population, a separate department for disability affairs was created only last year. Budgetary allocations continue to be low, even today.

Programmes and schemes spelt out in the Five-Year Plans have not received adequate budgetary support. The Eleventh Plan had a big section on disability. It outlined various measures most of which have not seen the light of day, whether it be in the matter of education, employment or other areas. Allocations must increase if the provisions of UNCRPD are to be implemented.

The disabled fare poorly in the matter of education, employment, etc. Literacy levels are as low as 49%, compared to 64% in the general population. Some studies reveal that around 34% of the disabled population are employed. This is doubtful. But even if we do go by the figure, that leaves out 66% of the disabled population!

Certification and allowances

Only 35% of the disabled population (based on the 2001 census) have been provided with disability certificates. This figure, disclosed in the 2010-11 annual report of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, is testimony to the ineffectiveness of monitoring, watchdog and delivery mechanisms and their failure to ensure delivery even of scarce services and justice to the disabled. First, you have a grossly underestimated figure of India’s disabled population. Second, the overwhelming majority of those counted do not possess certificates. Third, a large chunk of those who do possess certificates are deprived of an allowance (pension).

As far as certification is concerned, according to the 2010-11 annual report of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Andhra Pradesh has issued certificates in excess of the disabled population identified in the 2001 census. Roughly 60% of all those certified draw a pension. In the matter of certification, a state that has done better than Andhra Pradesh is Jharkhand. As against the identified disabled population of 260,916 in 2001, the number of persons certified, as of February 2011, stood at 332,822. However, many states lag behind. Among the major states, Bihar fares the worst with only 6.43% of its disabled population having been issued certificates. Delhi is not far behind, with just around 10%. The small centrally administered territory of Daman fares the worst with just over 1% of the disabled population certified.

Given the multitude of problems faced in the procurement of such certificates, in 2010 the central government amended the rules somewhat simplifying the procedure. A number of states are yet to amend their rules.

Apart from the procurement of certificates being cumbersome and time-consuming, they are not valid beyond the state’s borders and across departments. Therefore, the demand for a universally valid disability card is being raised.

There is no uniformity as far as allowances (erroneously called ‘pension’) are concerned. The criteria and amount differ from state to state. The Centre must not only substantially hike its contribution but also come up with uniform criteria for the country as a whole.

Disability issues cannot be divorced from the socio-economic and political realities existing at any particular point of time. Even while there is greater realisation among disabled people themselves about their rights, and far more sensitivity than there used to be, much of the discourse on disability tends to be divorced from the objective socio-political reality.

In this context, while talking about disability issues, one thing that is left out of the discourse within the disability rights movement in India and elsewhere is the effects of liberalisation on the disabled.

Since 1991, when liberalisation was introduced, the government’s role has been significantly reduced at the expense of market forces. Indeed, the ideology of neo-liberalism portrays state intervention as an obstacle to economic growth. According to this ideology, state intervention breeds inefficiency and undermines the independence of the market. Therefore, the argument goes, the government’s role and expenditure must be curtailed and substituted by the private sector.

These policies have led to the privatisation of crucial sectors and services such as health, education, etc. Needless to say, this has had major implications for disabled people as it has other sections of society. Vanmala Hiranandani, in ‘Disability, Economic Globalisation and Privatisation: A Case Study of India’, Disability Studies Quarterly says: ‘Budget cuts in the post-reform period have also reduced government spending on disability programmes. Between 1998 and 2003, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), the nodal agency for promoting the welfare of disabled and other marginalised groups, accounted for only between 5-7% of total government spending, signifying the low priority placed by the government on core programmes for people with disabilities (World Bank, 2007).’

The National Policy for Persons with Disability, 2006 envisages a further withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities, increasing reliance on NGOs, and mobilisation of resources from the private sector. This is reflected in the Eleventh Plan document.

Since budgeting is under various heads and across various ministries, it is difficult to get a complete picture. A comprehensive study on budgetary allocations is urgently required. One thing is certain though—the allocations are not commensurate with the percentage of India’s disabled and do not fulfil even their basic requirements.

Apart from poverty, in which 70% of the disabled population lives, disabled people struggle also with the additional costs of healthcare, rehabilitation, assistive devices, and caregivers. It is in this context that the need to provide BPL cards to the disabled population arises.

While the Supreme Court, in its order of May 2, 2003, directed that the disabled be listed in the automatic inclusion category for Antyodaya benefits, that is the ‘poorest of the poor’, the BPL census questionnaire was framed in such a manner as to ensure that families with disabled members do not get a score. Under current parameters, people with disabilities are not considered individual units; they are grouped into households with their caregivers. As most disabled people live with able-bodied caregivers, they are deprived of BPL status.

The effect of liberalisation on the disabled sector is therefore an important issue to be considered in the present Indian context. A much deeper study has to be carried out to reveal the full picture.

G N Karna summed up the costs and implications of the current situation as: ‘Reduction in existing welfare provision and increasing diversity in the availability and cost of services have made it harder for the disabled to take part in societal activities.’ Disability Studies in India: Retrospects and Prospects.


The skewed ‘reforms’ that successive governments have undertaken over the last two decades themselves need reform. A basic step would be to treat the sops and concessions given to the rich as ‘burdens’ and subsidies given to the poor and the marginalised as ‘incentives’, not vice-versa.

This has to find reflection in a new policy that will set new goals. The new policy will have to have a rights-based perspective and should list the government’s obligations and desired goals within a set timeframe. Disability being a state subject, framing a policy at the national level alone will not suffice. Many states—Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Goa, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu—have separate policies for persons with disabilities.

The adoption of UNCRPD and its ratification by India reinforces the need for us to shelve the old policy and adopt a new one. Various issues concerning the disabled have to be mainstreamed through special cells into the agendas of all ministries concerned with government schemes and projects. Disability is no longer a ‘charity’ or ‘welfare’ issue. It is an issue for the realization of rights, the desire to live with dignity and share equally in the fruits of development. (Infochange)

By Muralidharan

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