“Everyone who needs support should be included in the National Trust Act”: Poonam Natarajan

The National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy,  Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities has been in the eye of quite a  few storms recently. From ensuring that an adamant Chandigarh administration takes onus of the mentally retarded rape victim to the debate on including mental illness in the National Trust Act. Poonam Natarajan, Chairperson, National Trust clears the air in an interview with Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S.

D.N.I.S.: There is a huge debate in the disability sector on whether there should be four different laws on disabilities or one comprehensive law. What are your views on this?

Poonam Natarajan: I think there should be one comprehensive law. However, from the earlier four laws, the Rehabilitation Council of India Act should be amended separately. It cannot be part of the comprehensive law, because manpower development is a separate subject. The new comprehensive law should also take a good look at all that we have achieved in the in the last 15 years and also some of the structures that are in place. For example, the Local Level Committees under the National Trust have a huge potential and they must stay. Some of the welfare schemes like pensions given by each state, insurance, etc.must be ensured to people with disabilities.

D.N.I.S.: Given the fact that there is a growing demand for one comprehensive law, doesn’t the Amendments to the National Trust Act become a futile exercise?

Poonam Natarajan: No, Amendments to the National Trust Act is not a futile exercise. Legal capacity has not yet been considered (in India). The amendments to the National Trust Act put in place legal capacity and supported decision making. The role of the Local Level Committees is also being enlarged to develop support systems for people who may need support in making choices and decisions. At present this is only for four disabilities. Perhaps, this can be expanded for all people who need such supports.

D.N.I.S.: An opinion poll has been put up on the National Trust website on whether mental illness should be included in the National Trust Act. It is being alleged that like the issue has been made into a frivolous exercise. What is your take on this?

Poonam Natarajan: Firstly, this is not a frivolous exercise. I think, it will generate discussion, debate and will get us the views of our stakeholders. Personally, I do not see anything wrong in such an opinion poll. However, we have got feedback that some people feel that it is not in good taste and we will reconsider having it on our website. In any case, an opinion poll is only an indicator, to see what the stakeholders are thinking and which way they would like us to go. It is not a final decision.

D.N.I.S.: There is a feeling in the sector that pressure from certain groups is keeping the National Trust from including mental illness in the Act. How much truth is there in this? If not, then why isn’t the National Trust including mental illness in the Act?

Poonam Natarajan: The National Trust Act cannot just include other disabilities, this will have to be done by Parliament. It is not a decision that the National Trust Board or the Chairperson can take. Yes, there are groups for and against the inclusion of mental illness. We also have requests from other groups like people living with Muscular Dystrophy and Multiple Sclerosis who would like to be included. My personal view is that everyone who needs support in decision making or a legal guardian should be included, no matter what the disability. The National Trust Act should become the Act for Legal Capacity or a similar chapter in the new law.

D.N.I.S.: The recent case of the pregnant mentally retarded girl in Chandigarh has highlighted the lack of State ownership and support systems needed for the care of intellectually disabled people. Is the National Trust working towards any policy that will ensure that such situations do not arise in the future?

Poonam Natarajan: This is a land mark case in our country. State ownership and support systems do exist, but they are lost in the earlier paradigms of protection, care and charity. This certainly needs to be changed, across the country.

The National Trust can be a facilitator and a catalyst to work towards more forward looking State Policies. This will need to be done in partnership with disability advocates. They will need to use U.N.C.R.P.D. as a tool to take this objective forward. We hope to work on these issues in the future.



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