Mithu Alur, founder chairperson, Spastic Society of India (Mumbai), was exultant at “the specific assurances that the minister has given towards the education of India’s 30 million disabled children.” According to Alur, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured her during their meeting on Monday that Sibal’s statement in the House would be as “as legally binding as the fact that I am PM for the next five years”. Alur, however, said she was waiting to see how the modalities of the Act were “translated on the ground”. Kamal Bakshi, India’s ambassador to Iraq during the first gulf war, who played an active role in convincing the government of the need to clarify its stand on this issue, told The Indian Express that Sibal’s commitment to the differently-abled was “positive”, but he was “still unclear on the course of action ahead”.
The Right to Education Act provides free and compulsory education to all children aged between 6 and 14. Disability activists had alleged that the final version of the Bill seemed to exclude disabled children from its ambit. The PM intervened, directing Sibal to assuage their concerns in Parliament. Sources also confirmed that UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had taken a special interest in the issue. In his speech, Sibal categorically stated that the disabled were included within the definition of a “child belonging to disadvantaged group”. Consequently, disabled children will be able to avail of a 25 per cent quota in private schools across India.
Syamala Gidugu, executive director, Action for Ability Development and Inclusion, an NGO working on disability rights, said she felt reassured, but wondered why the inclusion could not be made in the legislation itself. Sibal also put to rest the fears of disability activists that cerebral palsy and autism were not covered under the law. In his speech, he referred to autistic children, and used the word “inclusive” to state that all forms of disability were covered under the Act. Javed Abidi, a prominent disability activist, who had previously accused the minister of deliberate apathy, promised to work constructively with the HRD Ministry on framing the model rules regarding disabled children. “We have to put this unfortunate dispute behind us,” he said. “The lives of 30 million children are at stake.”