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Congress manifesto promises amendment barring discrimination on disability grounds

In a significant departure from the past the Indian National Congress party manifesto for the upcoming national elections has devoted a section addressing the needs and concerns of India's disabled community.

The manifesto, released on Tuesday, promises:

  • To uphold the rights, dignity and self-respect of persons with disabilities.
  • A fair deal for persons with disabilities and opportunities for them to be employed, productive and contributing to the welfare of their families and to the progress of our nation.
  • Amend Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the ground of 'disability' or 'impairment'.
  • Make all public services and public spaces, government offices and private premises inclusive and accessible.
  • Set up an information portal to enable easy access to information on all 21 disabilities included in the RPWD Act 2016. Create awareness on the rights of persons with disabilities.
  • Direct all ministries and departments to do a quick review of their policy statements and programmes in order to ensure that they acknowledge, protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities.
  • Amend the Constitution to recognize the Braille script and Sign Language as languages.
  • Establish a National Centre of Research and Excellence for Special Education to ensure quality education for children with special needs and children with disabilities.
  • Commission an annual social audit of policies and programmes for persons with disabilities.
  • Make all assistive and adaptive aids, appliances and devices zero-rated under the GST 2.0 regime.

"The provisions related to constitutional amendments is something that we fought really hard for, says Meenakshi Balasubramanian of the Equals - Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, who along with Rajiv Rajan, of Ektha Foundation played a major role in framing these provisions.

The process, says Rajan, started during Constitution Day in December last year right through World Disability Day. "Ektha worked on a draft manifesto to be given to various political parties that we circulated widely within the disability movement for feedback and then we incorporated suggestions. Through a known contact we were able to get in touch with the top leadership in the Congress party.

Mixed reactions

Balasubramanian says she is largely satisfied with what's finally on paper barring some reservations.

Most of what we had asked for has been covered for except for the Census. We wanted internationally comparable data and that has not been mentioned. We would also have liked the budget data to be disaggregated across the country, so we know how much is spent on disability. The GST point is welcome but it's not new so we can't call it a big commitment. Also, there is nothing specific for women with disabilities. - Meenakshi Balasubramanian, Equals - Centre for Promotion of Social Justice

Murlidharan Vishwanath, General Secretary, National Platform of the Disabled (NPRD) has also welcomed the promise to amend Articles 15 and 16 but strikes a cautionary note. "Let us remember that when a private member's bill to this effect was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 by Smt. Brinda Karat of the CPI(M) it could not get through. The Congress party was in power at that time. But if it is willing to make amends it is welcome.

Vishwanath also points out that the Congress manifesto has not been released in Braille, something that party president Rahul Gandhi had promised. Nor is there is an audio version of the manifesto, like that of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

However, one cannot deny that the Congress has been receptive to suggestions made by various disability rights groups that reached out. Among them was the Mariwala Health Initiative whose Bridge the Gap campaign aims to make mental health an election issue.

"We had reached out to the Congress Party and met representatives with a specially made kit on mental health, says Rajvi Mariwala, one of the prime movers behind Bridge the Gap. "It is an excellent sign that they not only acceded to our demand but affirmed it fully. We are very satisfied as the manifesto speaks to implementation and the necessary budgetary allocation for it.

There are some glaring lapses as Vishwanath and disability rights advocate Nipun Malhotra point out.

"The fact that they are going to work on 21 disabilities is interesting, but the only thing missing is inclusive education, says Malhotra. "I would have liked to see a section on that as well as skill development and employment. What I like about the Congress manifesto is that it goes beyond the Bharatiya Janata Party's Accessible India Campaign (AIC) and specifically addresses discrimination. The AIC focused on infrastructure accessibility alone. I am also happy to see the promise regarding sign language and Braille.

Vishwanath is disappointed that the manifesto makes no mention of amending other laws in tune with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) . And he speaks for everyone when he reminds us of the eternal gap that falls between promise and delivery. "We hope that if the Congress comes to power it will make adequate budgetary allocation for implementing the various promises that it has made.

ALSO READ:CPI(M) releases election manifesto in audio version, disability rights groups call it a historic move

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