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Let Us ACT Together.

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From its very conception, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act has been fraught with controversies; quite a surprising situation given that most factions fighting for disability rights in the nation supposedly desire to present a united front. India, having signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) in October 2007 with astounding alacrity, took almost three years to decide to draft a new piece of legislation, instead of bringing about over 100 amendments to the existing The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995, to align laws in the country with international obligations.

The recent past has seen a flurry of activity in the written media about the working draft of the Act that was released on the 20th of November, 2010. As is the situation in case of every decision dealing with a great number of people with divergent ideas, this draft too has come under fire on several grounds and has received bouquets as well. The only crucial factor, however, is that the draft, termed as a working draft seeks not to be a decision, but a deliberative instrument meant to change as substantive suggestions come in.

One of the principal opponents of the law, Mr. Javed Abidi, Convenor of the Disability Rights Group, is of the opinion that the current draft legislation is, in entirety, against the letter and spirit of the UN CRPD. His opinion is based on the belief that the voices of persons with disabilities went unheard in the drafting process and that the Committee set up to draft the law is inept and displays a lack of “brain trust”. He has made it clear that in his belief, the Committee has lost any faith that he had in it and that it, along with the legal consultant, ought to be dismissed. 

Taking a strongly opposing stance, Mr. Prasanna Pincha, Special Rapporteur at the National Human Rights Commision, in his open letter detailing his opinion of the draft on first reading, states that “the working draft, in a certain sense, is way more radical/progressive than even the UNCRPD.” He goes on to congratulate the Committee and the legal consultant for executing the task of drafting such landmark legislation “with remarkable sensitivity and alacrity”.

Mr. Abidi insists that expert knowledge and the requirements of persons with disabilities have been disregarded time and again by the legal consultant, Dr. Amita Dhanda, and the Committee. On the other hand, the legal consultant informs that sub-groups had their deliberations with the legal consultant after consulting with larger civil society. These opinions were proactively obtained by committee members, for example on women with disabilities, even whilst in consultation with the legal consultant. The duty to seek opinion of civil society was on Committee members’ not the consultant; it was a duty which the members fulfilled in both letter and spirit. 

Another source who was intrinsically involved in the drafting process and worked on accessibility points out that the civil society has been involved throughout. The one meeting in September where the civil society was invited, “they derailed the entire process”. Also, the chair was always open to suggestions via e-mail. Mr. Mahesh Chandrasekhar, Advocacy Coordinator at CBR Forum opines that the manner in which the draft law has been published without any explicit statement soliciting civil society participation facilitates the creation of a situation where “the few people who have been in someways [sic] connected to the members of the committee are somehow trying to be engaged in this process”

It is, however, interesting to note that the very idea behind having a working draft is to listen to the suggestions of experts and concerned parties and make changes if required. The first explanatory note stating that “this working draft has been put together so that the Committee, the Disability sector, the larger civil society and the duty bearers can through a process of dialogue and deliberation arrive at a draft which can be accepted by all” seems like an explicit enough solicitation of expert opinion and civil society participation. It seems unwise to squander such an opportunity, basing one’s arguments, against the fruit of eight months’ worth of effort of numerous individuals, on grounds such as the fact that the Committee met for short hours with long gaps of forty days in between and that it was “lazy”. 

While much of the criticism leveled against those involved in drafting the law may be justified, one wonders whether it makes a substantive difference in ensuring there exists robust disability rights legislation within the nation. Given the parallels being drawn between the drafting process of the UN CRPD and that of the draft law under discussion, it would perhaps be pertinent to highlight the united efforts of the disability sector in the case of the former to present constructive criticism. The remarkable contribution of disability rights groups in the framing of the UN CRPD came from a conscientious attempt to criticize effectively and provide feasible alternatives. It certainly would be preferable if those criticizing the current working draft had substantive changes in mind and alternatives to offer, as was the case during the drafting of the UN CRPD. While much has been said about representatives who weren’t allowed a say in the drafting of the law, the fact that deliberations on the working draft are on and this is the ideal time to send in any substantive or structural changes that one would want to see in the draft seems to be ignored.

A question that has gained prominence of late is the suggestion of a Disability Code with dedicated legislation for special situations and for authorities such as the Disability Rights Authority. The suggestion was made for several reasons, such as the requirement of dedicated legislation that details the functioning of important bodies like the DRA and the constraint in space if an all encompassing law was to be drafted. 

Critics claim that multiplicity of laws is against the wishes of the disability sector and a code is not legally viable while Dr. Dhanda states that it is a mere suggestion that arose out of practical discomfort and that it would effectively deal with issues of reconciling inherent differences and also allow for greater detailing to define the accountability of the DRA or rules governing it, etc. Mr. Pincha also wholly endorsed the concept, affirming that “common law to address commonalities, and specific laws, to address specificities depending on need and necessity” is what is required. A meeting held by CBR Forum in Bangalore on the 20th of December simply concluded that the idea required further discussion on public forums. All that this goes to show is that various shades of opinion exist within the disability sector and constructive suggestions and open discussions alone can hope to solve the deadlock one seems to notice forming. What effort has, thus far, been expended at criticizing issues that can neither be mended nor bear any consequence to the progress of the law, could perhaps now be used constructively to build on the foundation that the working draft sets.

It has been said quite succinctly that “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.” One cannot help feeling that those advocating unity amongst and justice for the 70 million people with disabilities in India are the very same stalwarts who leave the sector fragmented. It is, perhaps, time for sincere attempts at reconciliation and for real and substantive criticism, if this landmark piece of legislation detailing the rights of the aforementioned 70 million people is to finally materialise.

Note: This article was published on oneindia.in in two parts and can be accessed at:  http://news.oneindia.in/feature/2011/01-04-rights-of-person-disability-act-draft-part1.html and http://news.oneindia.in/feature/2011/01-04-rights-of-person-disability-act-draft-part2.html

 

 

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