India is home to a myriad of marginalities. Most of them find mention in ongoing public discourses, but disability as a marginality is sidelined because it is thought to be insignificant.
Marginalised sections are ubiquitous in every society. Marginalisation is a feature of human history the world over, a historical process that pushes certain sections of society to the fringes of the social order. It is a systemic way of deprivation and discrimination. Marginalised social groups have limited access to opportunities, restricted freedom of choice, and their inherent personal capabilities remain unexplored. Marginalisation is no new phenomenon and marginality no new topic. It was first introduced to the epistemic cannon by Robert E. Park in his essay titled ‘Human Migration and the Marginal Man’, published in 1924. Marginality is all around us. Women, for example, have historically been denied various rights the world over. The marginalisation of black people in America, Jews in Germany, and Dalits in India – to mention a few – is part of our historical memory and lived experience. The discussion and debate over marginality hasn’t ceased yet because it is with us even today.
The marginalised have, from time to time, protested against social inequalities and organised movement(s) to have justice delivered to them. Most of these movement(s) succeeded considerably in securing certain rights and privileges for the marginalised.
Among marginalities, disability is the least discussed. Persons with disabilities (PwDs), no doubt, have been given certain concessions and relaxations in different walks of life, but they still depend on “normal” people to represent them politically. They are far from taking part in decision-making. There are many examples of persons with disabilities in positions of power and authority in Europe, the US and Canada, and in some Arab and African countries, which is proof that “disability” cannot keep a person from decision-making and policy-making process.
The WHO defines “disabilities” as ‘an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. “An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
India is home to a myriad of marginalities. Most of them find mention in ongoing public discourses, but disability as a marginality is sidelined because it is thought to be insignificant. Though postcolonial India saw remarkable improvement in the quality of life of the disabled, but this is, arguably, not enough. The latest National Statistical Office (NSO) survey suggests that persons with any kind of disability constitute 2.2 per cent of India’s population, but they still remain politically underrepresented. In response to official apathy and state neglect, India’s disabled population – along with various NGOs and civil rights groups – raised their voice to demand equal rights and fair treatment, but these demands were not met, at least not immediately. Nilika Mehrotra writes in an article titled ‘Disability Rights Movements in India: Politics and Practice’ (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 6, Feb 5-11, 2011), “Postmodern and post structuralist influences in the 1990s, however, brought the question of difference to the centre and fuelled identity politics in the era marked by what is loosely termed as globalisation. Disability rights activism emerged in this context where the voices of persons with disabilities that were muted till the early 1990s began to find collective expression.”
Persons with disabilities share no other commonality, and 70 per cent of their population lives in rural India, which are the basic reasons for their under- representation in political culture. They are considered as dependent and incapable of living by themselves, which is why unemployment among them is much higher than in otherwise normal people.
Local and international pressure has pushed the Government of India to action. UNGA proclamations and other international covenants gave an impetus to bringing about a change in the lives of the disabled. In 1992, the UN declared that December 3 would be observed as ‘International Day of Persons with Disabilities’ every year. The UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006, proved to be very significant. India is one of its signatories, and in 2007 ratified it. Indian Parliament passed Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 with an aim to give equal opportunities, protection of rights, and full participation in socio-economic activities. It also reserved 3 per cent of government posts for PwDs and 3 per cent reservation in Higher Education Institutions. The year 1995 became a benchmark for Disability Rights Movement in India. As a result, issues and miseries of the disabled persons came to light and found visibility in public domain. In 2016, a revised PwD Act was passed which identified twenty-one disabilities in India. It is made in accordance with UNCRPD. The Act aims to prevent the otherisation of PwDs. It also guarantees equality and non-discrimination. The right to take part in political and public life is a fundamental provision of the ‘International Human Rights Law’. It was first set out in Article 21 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)’ and then was further explained in Article 25 of the ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)’. Political rights have been further traced in a series of international and regional human rights instruments. Among them, the ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)’ was the first to expand the right to take part in political and public life in the context of disability. Clause 29 of CRPD states that “state parties should ensure that people with disabilities have political rights, as well as an opportunity to enjoy them on an equal footing with others”.
India is a signatory to the CRPD (30th May 2007). Article 326 of the Constitution of India provides for the ‘Right to be Elected’ under the ‘Right to Adult Suffrage’. However, the Indian government has not introduced any provisions as yet to ensure that the disabled community has equal representation in Parliament, state assemblies, and panchayats in the country.
Political representation of PwDs in India is conspicuously absent. Indian Parliament has reserved seats for SC, ST, and other minority communities, but there is no such provision for PwDs, which is discriminatory. As Hanna Pitkin writes, “To represent means to present again”. Political representation is the act of making the voices of the marginalised heard. No political party in India is considering giving an opportunity to the disabled community on “social responsibility basis” but is only putting up candidates on the basis of their popularity.
In present-day India, we do have many Acts, laws and rules which aim to produce a barrier-free environment for all classes of the society. Unfortunately, the disabled community in the country still comes across huge challenges, ranging from social barriers to environmental barriers. These barriers have limited the participation of PwDs in many disciplines, especially in our political system. Separate election for the representation of disabled community also is not possible in our country because of scattered population of disabled people. Hence, the GOI can introduce a provision to reserve a nominated seat for disabled persons which may help in representing community in a better way. Representation of PwDs in elected political bodies can bring about a beneficial change to the disabled community and help them to shape better and effective inclusive policies for themselves.
India is progressing towards inclusive development of all communities, but unfortunately the expected levels of inclusiveness have not been achieved yet in many spheres. Representation of the disabled community in Parliament, state assemblies and panchayats will be a big step towards reaching inclusive development and will enable the disabled community in rural areas to develop required infrastructure for themselves.
The disabled community in the country is gradually making it to the forefront in almost all aspects of life. Inclusive policies go a long way in enabling the community and providing them with equal opportunities to make use of their rights, attain their strengths, and contribute to the nation’s growth. A quota for PwDs in the Lok Sabha, state elections and panchayats/ local urban bodies will be a major progressive step in our journey towards inclusiveness.
—The writer is a Visually Impaired student pursuing BA (Hons) Pol Science at AMU. [email protected]