Initial comments and observations on the new draft law

Of late, I have finished taking a quick and cursory look at the new draft law (the working draft as it has been aptly described) which has been updated following conclusion of the last two-day meeting of the new law committee constituted for the purpose of developing a new legislation to replace the existing PWD Act.

I have been receiving any number of telephone calls from friends and activists in the disability sector requesting for my personal and initial views/comments/observations. In view of this, I hereby take this opportunity to share my initial comments/observations/views with three riders: namely, that these views are mine and that they do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization/institution that I may be associated with; That I reserve the right to express further comments/views ETC.; and, that, these views/comments are based, as stated above, on a very quick and cursory reading of the latest working draft and that I need to read the same with greater circumspection, and in greater details.

My immediate and intimate feeling on completing the first quick and cursory reading of the said working draft is that it is not a document speaking for persons with disabilities, it is persons with disabilities speaking for themselves. I wish to whole-heartedly compliment all concerned including my highly esteemed friend Dr. Amita Dhanda under whose active and able guidance her spirited team at Nalsar have put together a brilliant masterpiece of a draft following receipt of inputs from the new law committee. I must also congratulate the Committee chairperson Sudha Kaul and all the members of the committee for the hard work they put in and also for the generosity and cool-headedness demonstrated by them even in the face of all kinds of discombobulations. To my mind, the keenness of the committee and also of the legal consultant in valuing interactive dialogue with the sector is above board.

The depth and intensity of the vision of the working draftcan be better appreciated and felt as one runs through its pages with unqualified openness and unquestionable objectivity.

All this, however, is not at all to suggest that I do not have differences or disagreements at all. Yes, in places, the working draft appears to be overly radical, almost oblivious of ground realities, especially, in respect of  legal capacity to act in relation to persons belonging to certain specific categories of disabilities. Yes, it seems to have become a little too bulky and voluminous, and even unwieldy. Yes, the language and the format perhaps needs fine-tuning in order to ensure that it becomes legally and legalistically more sound.

I would also like to express my satisfaction over the fact that some of my suggestions put forth by me verbally to the person concerned only on the basis of taking a look at  some portions of the first draft brought out on the 20th of the last month have been taken care of in the current draft. These include insertion of a reference to UNCRPD in the Preamble, use of the expression “lifting/eliminating the barriers”,  in place of the expression “lowering the barriers” ETC.

Having said the foregoing, I would like to make the following initial observations/comments in an attempt to facilitate further critical and constructive reflections

  • Legal capacity:  I favour the adoption of the minimalist model of legal capacity which, among other things, must recognize all persons with disabilities as persons before the law on an equal basis with others and also recognize legal capacity of persons with disabilities together with provision for support for whosoever needs that support. Such support should only be for the period, and, to the extent needed by the person concerned. Provisions for safeguards against any possible abuse of support and other relevant matters must be duly incorporated. To my mind, complete and explicit elimination of substitutive support in respect of legal capacity to act in relation to persons belonging to certain specific categories of disabilities  may not be fair and proper. Certain specific condition of certain persons may warrant substitutive support. Experience tells us that some persons in some situations or condition may not even be able to nseek support all by themselves. They b need support even to seek support. Provision only for non-substitutive support for all situations and conditions is replete with danger. Imagine a situation assuming that there is absolutely no provision for substitutive support — What happens if a supporting person/network commits a serious lapse resulting in irreparable and substantial loss to the concerned person with disability, and then takes the plea that the decision was his (concerned disabled person’s), and that the supporting person/network was only supporting that concerned disabled person in taking the decision but the ultimate decision was his. Thus, the supporting person/network may get away with impunity.  To my way of thinking, legal capacity has two components, namely, that one is recognized as a person before the law, and that one is presumed to have the ability and the maturity to comprehend the nature and possible consequences of a given action. In a situation of this ilk, one just can’t have the cake and eat it too. Besides, despite absence of criminal intent, how does a person with very profound intellectual/developmental/psychosocial disability accused of an offence  take recourse to the plea of Mens Rea when the full legal capacity to act of such a person is recognized necessarily though unjustly and erroneously implying that he had the ability and maturity to comprehend the nature and possible consequences of the action she/he might be accused of? I feel that each one of us, regardless of ability or disability may need substitutive support as well. Assuming, (not admitting), that I am in a state of coma and the surgeon concerned has to perform on me a critical surgical operation which may prove fatal. Someone close to me has to decide for me. Is this not substitution? If not, what else is? For such and other like reasons, I feel that while there should be explicit provision for making all-out efforts to promote non-substitutive support, substitutive support need not and should not be altogether done away with.
    The UNCRPD also talks about support wherever such support is needed; and support can be both substitutive and non-substitutive; Otherwise, what prevented the framers of the UNCRPD to impose an explicit and  blanket ban on substitutive support? While it is all right to be surcharged with idealism, it would be prudent if the working draft reflects a more judicious combination of idealism and pragmatism.
  • Disability Rights Authority (DRA):  The DRA is a very well-conceived concept albeit it needs modifications so as to be in harmony with the contents/views expressed in 1 above. The reason is not far to seek and hence, is not elaborated. After going through the powers, functions and the structure of the proposed DRA with meticulous care, I strongly feel that the proposed DRA must be set up under a separate/exlusive/dedicated statute which may be called “The Disability Rights Authority Act —“. This suggestion is being put forth given the comprehensive nature of DRA’s mandate, its powers and functions, and also its elaborate structure. Please allow me to disabuse the minds of those who feel that the DRA is intended only as a recommendatory bodywith no teeth. My reading of the proposed DRA concept leaves me convinced that it wil have ample powers ample participation of experiential and subject experts, and a number of bodies functioning under its direct supervision, control and guidance.
  • Chief Commissioner and state and district Commissions: Please exercise caution and guard against the interchangeable use of the expressions “Commission” and “Commissioner” in relation to the states and districts. Even the corrected/updated draft in one or two places uses these expressions interchangeably. The proposal for a Chief Commissioner at the national level, and Commission at the state and district levels is innovative, imaginative, and it would be interesting to see how it works.
  • Education: The chapter on education has been very comprehensively drafted and rightly so. While it justly and emphatically provides for inclusive education at all levels, it also mentions/recognizes the so-called special schools. However the mention/recognition of the so-called special schools has happened only in whispers and not with the kind of emphasis it merits. Therefore, there is a definite and distinct need for explicit provision, among other things, for concurrently creating and promoting more disability specific schools and strengthening the existing ones on modern and scientific lines. Such explicit provision is  necessary despite an already incorporated provision in the working draft in respect of providing education in environments that maximize academic and social development.
    Anyways, we already have exclusive schools in relation to some other non-disability areas which is fair enough as long as one gets quality education; and, assuming for a moment, that we don’t have such exclusive schools for others, nothing should stop us from incorporating what is needed. I feel that since persons with disabilities are recognized as a part of human diversity and humanity, there is little justification for encouraging the use of the expression”special schools”. Instead, we should use the expression “disability specific school”.
  • Employment:  I immediately find little scope for commenting on provisions relating to employment as reflected in the working draft. However, I emphatically feel that the justification which merit reservation in promotion for SC and ST communities also applies at least, in equal measure, if not more to persons with disabilities. Hence, it is important to underscore the need for bringing about necessary amendment in the Indian Constitution as was done in the case of SC and ST communities. In some place which I am immediately unable to locate, the working draft while providing for safeguards  states that no person shall be discriminated “merely” on ground of disability implying thereby that disability could be one of the grounds, though not the sole ground of discrimination.  Therefore, Please delete the word “merely” if it still exists in the updated draft. In order to address the concerns of persons who happen to be totally blind, a portion of the reserved quota of jobs should be earmarked for them out of the reserved quota for the blind and the low vision.
  • Accessing justice:  Relevant provisions are very well conceived. Just incorporate a strong provision for fast-tracking of all cases at all levels involving persons with disabilities.
  • Definitions: Just one thought: This is in relation to the generic definition of persons with disabilities which is almost the same as given in Article 1 of the UNCRPD with the lone exception that the expression “long_term” has not been retained. Will this be prejudicial to the interests of the genuinely disabled?

This definition, and also the defition of “reasonable accommodation” and a number of other provisions leave me convinced that the working draft, in a certain sense, is

way more radical/progressive than even the UNCRPD.

My views in respect of the need for having a more progressive and forward looking common law compared to the current PWD Act and also the need for having additional and specific legislations to address highly specific issues of the more marginalized groups within the larger group of persons with disabilities are so well-known that they perhaps do not merit at least immediate reiteration. Common law to addres commonalities, and specific laws, to address specificities depending on need and necessity is my view. I do not favour the idea of clubbing/merging the existing laws into one Act. To my humble way of thinking, it is so utterly wrong to allege, as some seems to have alleged that the new law committee has violated its mandate. In fact, the new law committee was neither mandated to suggest repral of any laws nor to club and merge all disability specific legislations into only one legislation.

Be that as it may, it would also be in the fitness of things to suggest some amendments in the Indian Constitution to strengther the rights regime for persons with disabilities. Suggestions for such amendments must include amending of Articles 15 and 16 so that disability gets included as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. I am aware that suggesting constitutional amendments, strictly speaking, is not within the ambit of the new law committee’s mandate; yet, one perhaps can take this reasonable freedom.

Some more random thoughts: I am not too sure whether insertion of a definition of “barrier” will necessarily work to our advantage. Sometimes, leaving some grey areas is perhaps more advantageous. Some other times, however, it is necessary to define and demystify some expressions. For example, in my view, if any model other than the minimalist model of legal capacity is insisted, then, in my considered view, legal capacity will necessarily have to be defined and demystified.

The working draft is unique in more ways than one. I am particularly impressed by the insertion of principles of implementation and interpretation. The author has made an ingenious attempt to retain the positive jurisprudence which has been built over the years.

To allay the fears expressed by some of our friends, let me state in no uncertain terms that the current workin draft does also adequately address the concerns and aspirations of those persons with disabilities who live in the rural and remote areas. The fact of the matter is that the working draft is so all-encompassingly inclusive.

To be fair to the author of the working draft, we must not fail to appreciate the highly challenging nature and also the enormity and stupendity of the task considering that intricate diversities and diverse intricacies do exist within the larger group of persons with disabilities. It was no mean task; and, yet executed with remarkable sensitivity and alacrity.

I am afraid the Govt. may not accept this kind of a draft in toto; it nevertheless, will continue to have an immensely educative value.

I feel that we need to critique this brilliantly conceived working draft with the objectivity and openness that it merits keeping in mind our  best interests as persons with disabilities, and  putting aside our egos to the extent possible. Such critique should invariably be constructive and in good taste. If some people still choose not to eschew condemnatory language, all I wish to say is this: Just come up with an alternative and matching draft so that one is able to compare and contrast and come to a certain view in respect of the matter.

Well done, amita, well done Nalsar team, well done Sudhaji and the new law committee!

Best regards, 

Prasanna Kumar Pincha



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