A hurried disabilities Bill will serve no purpose

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha to universal criticism and till now, 16 amendments have been circulated to members of the upper House in an effort to save the Bill. The objective of the legislation was stated as “a Bill to give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” (UN CRPD). Hence it must be in consonance with the requirements of the Convention to fulfill its primary purpose. The CRPD mandates an absolute prohibition on discrimination on grounds of disability, but this Bill permits discrimination provided it is to achieve any legitimate aim, in clear violation of the UNCRPD!

The UNCRPD prohibits deprivation of liberty on grounds of disability. The Bill cleverly inserts one word to change the guarantee altogether: it says that no person shall be deprived of his or her personal liberty only on grounds of disability. This formulation was rejected while drafting the UNCRPD since it permits the deprivation of liberty when a person with disability is destitute or considered to be ‘dangerous’. For thousands, the addition of ‘only’ could mean being forced to live in institutions for the rest of their lives.

The other core UNCRPD principle that remains to be examined is the right to exercise legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life. Presently scores of laws disqualify persons with disabilities from marrying, inheriting, voting, etc. The UNCRPD seeks to offset disqualifications imposed upon people with intellectual, psychosocial and developmental disabilities by recognising their right to live their lives according to their will and preference.

However, the 2014 Bill did not even mention the right to legal capacity. In the amendment, legal capacity has been recognised as an obligation of the government, not a right of persons with disabilities. If the government fails to ensure legal capacity, then the person with disabilities can do nothing but bemoan the poor implementation of Indian laws. Consequently, entitlement of reservations in jobs becomes meaningless for persons with disabilities. If it were possible to make things worse, section 110 of the legislation states categorically that the Bill will not override any existing laws, which means all discriminatory laws will continue to be valid!

However, despite the many flaws in the Bill, people with the newly-included disabilities are pressing for its enactment because these disabilities have been waiting for inclusion in the Act since 1999 and feel they cannot wait any more. This grievance is undeniably genuine. The correct way to address this concern would be to amend the Act of 1995, whether by Act or ordinance to include the long-excluded disabilities.

Let us not hurriedly enact a retrograde legislation for all disabilities, which would be impossible to amend for the next 25 years. In order to correct the injustice of exclusion, let us not create an equality of oppression.

(The author is professor and head, Centre for Disability Studies, Hyderabad)

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