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Javed Abidi, the convenor of Disabled Rights Group, and a vocal activist who has been at the forefront of disability revolution in India, talks to GOI Monitor about the present state of affairs and lacunae in laws
Q. After being involved in protracted battle in 1998 for implementation of Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, how do you react to instances of discrimination against the differently-abled, the most recent the case of Jeeja Ghosh who was mistreated by the crew of a private airline?
The incidents deserve condemnation in strongest terms. Though the airlines issued an apology, it's not good enough. We want strongest action possible, even incarceration of the accused crew, so that it sets a precedent. National media let the accused go off the hook after a few days and even Jeeja and her well wishers, including me, did not press for more stern action. To appease sentiments, the DGCA ordered an enquiry. But what about the findings of the committee? It is clearly a case of procrastination on the part of DGCA. I personally met officials of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, but they are also non-committal on the issue. Then who will take responsibility on the part of authorities? Another few months will go by and the exact incident will recur. I seriously wonder as to how many more disabled people face such humiliation every single day. My safe bet is that for each reported case, there are at least 9 or 10 more which go unreported.
Q. What do you as the convenor of Disabled Rights Group suggest should be done to set an example for all those involved?
It all boils down to policy makers and decision makers. I suggest the following actions if we truly do not want these incidents to be repeated again in the future:
Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and Chief Commissioner of People with Disabilities (CCPD): Give an exemplary punishment. Make an example out of Spicejet. Hit them hard and hit them where it hurts. Levy a fine of at least Rs 1 crore. Suspend the pilot who discriminated against Jeeja and humiliated her.
National Trust for Welfare of People with Mental Retardation, Cerebral Palsy and Multiple Disabilities/Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment: Use the funds to create awareness in the airline industry from the check-in staff to the ground personnel and flight crew.
Media: Don't allow DGCA to revoke the pilot's suspension until he issues a public apology, on camera.
When communities (women, farmers, tribals, religious minorities) are discriminated/humiliated, their leaders act decisively and visibly. Issuing a press statement and making a few phone calls here and there is not enough. The government should be forced to act. I call upon both Dr Mithu Alur, on whose invitation Jeeja was flying to Goa, and Dr Sudha Kaul, the founder of Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy where Jeeja works, to immediately write a strong letter to the Civil Aviation Minister with a copy to the Social Justice Minister and the Prime Minister demanding a meeting to be held at the highest level and a decisive action taken in a time bound manner. And if no decisive action is taken, i strongly ask both Dr Kaul and Dr Alur to return their respective ‘Padma Shri’ to the government.
The onus of getting Jeeja justice is also on the broad shoulders of our newly-appointed chief commissioner for persons with disabilities (CCPD), P K Pincha and our second term National Trust chairperson Poonam Natarajan. What action, if any, has their office taken? Will they show moral courage and hand in their resignations if no decisive action is taken by the government ? That leaves us with one last question. As to what will I do in the middle of all this? Well, fortunately or unfortunately, neither do I have a post from which I can resign, nor an award that I can decline or return. So, I obviously will do what I guess I am best at: (a) to raise hackles; (b) to have a resounding protest; and (c) to fast, if it ultimately boils down to that.
Q. You are a vocal critic of the Mental Health Act in its present form. Please tell us your thoughts.
Our Constitution declares people with unsound mind as non-entity or in other words non-existent. In the end, it is a question of ‘legal capacity’. But how to decide if an adult is legally aware is a question which has been answered in ambiguous terms. According to the Mental Health Act if two psychiatrists certify a person to be mentally ill, he/she is confined to judicial custody or confinement for 120 days instead of immediate treatment and special care. Obviously, such a law is bound to be misused for various base crimes. Such an archaic law should definitely undergo a change.
Q. Has there been any progress made on this front?
A recent amendment moved by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare proposes reduction in time of confinement of a ‘mentally ill’ patient from 120 days to 30 days. However, concrete results will only show up once the question of legal capacity has been settled. There has been no official report on the state of mental hospitals in India since 1999. Incidents like Ervadi tragedy or widespread use of electric shocks as 'treatment' lead to a question if these people even enjoy basic human rights? According to the Disability Act, mental illness is the seventh and the last on the list of disabilities. That can give a clue on the conditions of these people. But again, I must emphasise that unless the question of unsound mind is settled, no progress can be made. These changes will ultimately happen. Look at the history of disability rights movement in India. Earlier, people with disabilities could only apply for Category C and D government jobs, but with sustained advocacy campaign they started entering civil service and were gradually accepted in the mainstream.
Q. You are also the President of Disabled People International ( DPI). Do you think recent protests in Bolivia seeking hike in disability allowance can be an inspiration for other countries, particularly India, to nurture more advocacy groups and leaders?
Even in India, there have been many protests by the disabled people. Yes, such events encourage the common cause we all stand for, and can be shown in good light.
Edited by Aswati Anand