India to get new act for persons with disabilities

In a promising win for millions of persons with disabilities in India, a bill that had been pending for two years in Parliament was passed on the very last day of business for the Winter Session in the Lok Sabha on 16th December.

The bill paves the way for a new act for the rights of persons with disabilities and will replace the two-decade-old the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.

The news brought relief and ushered a wave of enthusiasm among disability organisations and activists who had been holding peaceful vigils over the past month or so to remind the parliamentarians that the bill should not get delayed for the next session. The Winter Session had witnessed stormy scenes resulting from divided opinions over the much discussed demonetisation move by the government.

A rare unity

It was heartening to see that members, cutting across party lines, decided to unite ensure that the much awaited bill is passed. The concensus also highlights the positive changes that have taken place since the Disability Act 2015 came into force with both the policymakers and political leadership in the country showing stronger concern for rights and participation of persons with disabilities.

In fact, the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, passed the bill within two hours after a short debate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also present in the house during this period. Earlier on Wednesday, the Rajya Sabha too had witnessed similar bonhomie for passage of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014.

A new phase of empowerment

The bill ushers in a more progressive policy and legal framework for the government, organisations and persons with disabilities to achieve inclusion and equal rights for persons with disabilities.

“The New Act will bring our law in line with the United National Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which India is a signatory. This will fulfill the obligations on the part of India in terms of UNCRD. Further, the new law will not only enhance the Rights and Entitlements of Divyangjan but also provide an effective mechanism for ensuring their empowerment and true inclusion into the Society in a satisfactory manner.” says a text from the Prime Minister’s official website.

Among the salient features of the bill is disability being defined as an evolving and dynamic concept and the types of disabilities being increased from seven to 21. It is important to underline that while some of the specific reservations and affirmative actions have been earmarked for persons with disabilities based on degree of disability defined in the law, the bill takes a much wider view of disability and the dynamic social group that it constitutes.

Though the 2011 national census identified 2.6 percent of India population constituting of people with disabilities, there has been a persistent demand for making a higher allocation of resources and reservation in jobs/education for persons with disabilities. Though the bill provides for reservation in vacancies in government establishments from the existing 3% to 4%, this is short of 5% that disabled peoples’ organisations were demanding.

Accessibility has emerged as a key policy and public campaign agenda for the government of India with its flagship Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan or Accessible India Campaign. The bill calls for strengthening the campaign and institutionalises this through a focus on accessibility in public buildings (both Government and private) in a prescribed time frame.

A provision that has generated mixed reactions is related to penal action mandated for offenses committed against persons with disabilities. The disabled peoples’ organisations feel that the wording of the statement related to it leaves a lot to subjective interpretation as it says ‘discrimination against a disabled person (would not be punishable) if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’.

The bill specifically mentions women and girls with disabilities and acknowledges that ‘special measures’ should be undertaken to protect the rights of women and children with disabilities.

The women’s rights groups, however, feel disappointed with the lack of specifics, as they had been asking for the incorporation of a separate subsection that would address the needs of women with disabilities following the guidelines set out by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Read a summary of key provisions of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014, on Prime Minister Modi’s web portal.