Monday, August 10, 2009

Right to Education

For the past week the news channels were full of the Right to Education Bill and the protest marches that were being held at Jantar Mantar in Delhi and in solidarity across cities in the country. I know a good many of the cynics have snorted and cried hoarse that this was motivated and was done for the sake of it. A large number who did not know any better were appalled that there actually were people who would have objections to something as important and as crucial in this country as the Right to Education. I wonder if the reaction would have been the same if the latter had known at the time that the reason was the a good twenty million children in the country found no place, no mention in what was to each citizen a significant and far reaching piece of legislation for every Indian and the future of this great Nation. Children with disabilities. This despite the fact that India had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and thereby made a commitment not only to its citizens but also to the International Community at large.

Events that unfolded thereafter was nothing short of a miracle. It was unheard of. Unbelievable. I am still in a trance. The naysayers have gone into hiding.....

Be that as it may I share here a piece that truly tells the story of this disappointmment, this crusade that had to be undertaken. The whys and the wherefores..... It appeared in the edit pages of the Indian Express dated 3rd August, 2009. Written by Javed Abidi, the pioneer of the Disability Rights Movement in India.


As most people are aware, the Right to Education Bill 2008 is before the Lok Sabha since last Thursday. It is due for debate later today and if passed, the Bill will become an Act, i.e. the law of the land. Rajya Sabha has passed it already.

The entire disability sector and its leadership are strongly opposed to this Bill in its present shape. If it is allowed to be passed by the Lok Sabha later today, it will exclude 30 million children with disabilities from the so - called ‘Right to Education’. It will have a gravely damaging impact on the life and future of these children, who are already excluded from the mainstream.

There are three fundamental flaws in the present Bill:

1. Under definitions, disabled children have been excluded from the definition of children belonging to ‘disadvantaged group’. The term disadvantaged has been classified as owing to social, cultural, economical, geographical, linguistic and gender, but the term disability which was there in the previous draft, right until last year, has been deliberately left out.

2. Similarly, where the term ‘school’ is defined, there obviously is no mention of special schools or other unique infrastructures that are needed by various types of children with disabilities.

3. Under the chapter on Right to Free and Compulsory Education, there is a reference to children ‘suffering’ from disability! But even there, the Ministry of HRD has failed to capture the genuine challenges that disabled children face. Here, the Bill restricts the definition of ‘disability’ to only the Disability Act of 1995. The babus were either unaware or have deliberately neglected the other most important piece of legislation, namely the National Trust Act of 1999. For the average reader, it is important to know that the Disability Act covers only the physical disabilities, for example blindness, deafness, locomotor impairments, etc. Other disabilities, the more difficult ones, namely cerebral palsy, autism, multiple disabilities, etc. are all covered under the National Trust Act.

If the Bill is not corrected at once and God forbid, if it is passed by Lok Sabha later today, it will automatically exclude all these severely and multiply disabled children. I am a physically disabled person. As a child, I started on crutches but soon had to start using the wheelchair. I have seen it all; I have experienced it up close. And inspite of all the difficulties and challenges that I faced as a physically disabled child (and most certainly not, I was not suffering!), let me clearly say it on record that those difficulties are nothing as compared to the challenges faced by a boy with autism or a girl with cerebral palsy or a child with deaf - blindness or mental retardation or muscular dystrophy, etc.

The babus are infamous for their insensitivity but callousness of this kind??? I could not have imagined this day in the worst of my nightmares. How the Ministry of HRD has bungled and bungled so - so badly, I am unable to comprehend.

It is extremely important for the Nation to know that the disability sector was not sleeping on this issue! We have put in hard work and not since yesterday or last week or even last month. Our struggle is more than a decade old.

It was in early 90s that the disability movement advocated that the Nation and its laws and policies must move away from the paradigm of charity and welfare to that of development and rights. The concept of ‘inclusiveness’ was put forth and defined, that people with disabilities especially children should not be segregated, that they should firmly be part of the mainstream. Until then, the so - called education of disabled children was restricted to ‘special’ schools, mostly badly run by NGOs. Blind school for the visually impaired. Deaf school for those with hearing impairments. Spastic Societies for children with cerebral palsy and so on.

No one paused. No one bothered to think or to worry as to what would happen to these kids after they finish their schooling in these artificially created, supposedly protective environments? Wouldn’t she or he have to be mainstreamed one day? Wouldn’t she or he attend a regular (normal!) college or university some day? And if so, then why not prepare them from Day One! Why segregate them? Why not allow them to be an integral part of the regular, mainstream educational system?

That is when, India decided to move away from the so - called special education to integrated education, and then finally to the concept of inclusive education. That is when, India first passed the Disability Act in 1995 and then, the National Trust Act in 1999. And since then, we have covered a long road. There is a National Disability Policy. The current XIth Five Year Plan has a whole chapter on disability issues, where firm commitments have been made, not only about policy but also about resources. Finally, as recent as two years ago, India ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

In the previous government, when Arjun Singh was the HRD Minister, Dr. Mithu Alur and I were asked to serve on Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE). We and several other experts from the disability movement actively participated on several Sub - Committees and Working Groups.

And all this hard work of a decade and more, finally lead us to a day in 2008 where disability and related issues were firmly entrenched in the Right to Education Bill 2008. If you take a look at that draft Bill, disability is clearly listed as a category under ‘disadvantaged groups’. And several other measures.

Now, suddenly, literally out of the blue, we find that all of that has been quietly deleted! Why? The colour of the government is still the same, with Dr. Manmohan Singh as our Prime Minister and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi as Chairperson, UPA. Two individuals, who beyond a shadow of doubt are extremely pro - disability. They must intervene, firmly and urgently. The Bill must be withdrawn.

We are asking for only three changes. All three, to my mind, are totally non - controversial – (1) Include disability under the definition of ‘disadvantaged groups’; (2) Include special schools and other necessary infrastructures under the definition of the term ‘school’; and (3) Under the Right to Free and Compulsory Education, firmly mention the National Trust Act of 1999, along with the Disability Act of 1995.

Without these three changes, the Bill must not be allowed to be passed by the Lok Sabha later today. To commit a mistake unknowingly is one thing, but to do it knowingly based on arrogance of power and the strength of numbers would be no less than a crime. I hope better sense prevails.

* Javed Abidi is the Convenor of Disabled Rights Group (DRG). He is himself a wheelchair user.