The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) expresses its strong disappointment at the relief measure announced by the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitaraman, today pertaining to disabled citizens.

The Minister has announced a one time ex gratis amount of  Rs. 1000/- for disabled persons through Direct Transfer. The amount by itself is very meagre and adding insult to injury is the fact that this will be given in two instalment spread over three months, which would average to Rs. 333.33 per month. This is grossly inadequate.

Besides, around half of the disabled population identified by the 2011 census do not possess a disability certificate mandatory for any entitlement under schemes, as per data released by the Department of Disability Affairs, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of India. Therefore, even this miserly amount is not available to a large number of persons identified by the 2011 census… In addition, the 2011 census had enumerated only persons having seven disabling conditions. Since then the number of conditions recognised as disabling has increased three-fold to 21. 

The vast mass of the disabled, who come from the most socially and economically deprived backgrounds and who are amongst the worst hit during such times are left to fend for themselves.

What else to expect from a government which has long abandoned its  responsibilities towards the weaker and marginalised sections of society,

It needs to be borne in mind that apart from bearing costs towards aids & appliances and their maintenance, many disabled persons also need a full time caregiver. Often, an earning member of the family has to give up employment for this purpose. The burden of the household increases manifold and accentuates poverty.

What is needed is an ex gratia payment of Rs. 5,000 per month to all disabled, till the lockdown is lifted and the country is rid of the Corona virus.

National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) welcomes the framing of the guidelines for the “protection and safety of persons with disabilities” during COVID-19, the delay notwithstanding. Needless to add that it would have immensely helped had the department not waited for 21 days after the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare issued its first general advisory on March 5, 2020. 

Having said that, we hope all concerned including state governments will put mechanisms in place to ensure that these guidelines are sincerely and strictly adhered to, especially the principle of Equality & Non-Discrimination.

However, in the interest of strengthening these guidelines, it is essential that the following concerns are also addressed:

The guidelines say that “persons with disabilities should be given access to essential food, water, medicine, and, to the extent possible, such items should be delivered at their residence or place where they have been quarantined.”

It is apprehended that the rider “to the extent possible” is more likely to be misused to deny such a service. The guidelines also fail to suggest measures to ensure uninterrupted supply of blood to people with blood disorders like Thalassemia who require regular blood transfusion as also oxygen cylinders in some other disorders.

The guideline suggests setting up of peer-support networks  to facilitate support during  quarantine for PwDs. These, you will appreciate, should not be restricted to only support during quarantine. A volunteer data base may be created in consultation with disability rights organisations from the panchayat level upwards for providing services to the disabled in need during the entire period of the lockdown and after.

It is also welcome that the guidelines suggest that “Employees with blindness and other severe disabilities in both public and private sector should be exempted from essential services work during the period as they can easily catch infection”.  “Severe disabilities” is a new and vague term that has now been coined. The RPD Act, 2016 does not use this term, nor is there a definition for this. It would have been better if the guidelines had been more specific. Apart from those with visual impairment, there are people with mobility issues, who may not be able to attend office in these conditions. You will also agree that those with compromised immune systems should be advised against attending office. Also, in the absence of public transport, most of the disabled employees would be unable to reach their places of work and return home.

Even for those who may be advised work from home, can we presume that appropriate adjustments at home, including personal assistance, will be provided. 

It also needs to be underlined that the overwhelming majority of disabled earning their livelihood are in the unorganised sector; petty hawking etc. These guidelines, we feel, do not address their concerns nor of the homeless disabled.

Various studies have indicated that no less than 65% of the disabled population are unemployed. The guidelines fail to suggest any measures to address their concerns. The Rs. 333.33 per month ex gratia announced by the Finance Minister, you will agree is grossly inadequate.  We are sure you will appreciate that social security measures have to take into account the extra expenditure that disability entitles, more so in such situations. We would therefore request you to urge the Finance Ministry to enhance the ex gratia to Rs. 5000/- per month.

While the guidelines do suggest on-line counselling mechanisms, it restricts this to the quarantine period only. People with disabilities, especially those with mental health issues have had their conditions aggravated during this period. Specific measures for those with psychosocial disabilities residing in hospitals, residences or streets need to be put in place. Trained professionals may be given responsibility to chalk out plans as per needs of specific groups. This should also include telephonic counselling facilities.

There are also reports that institutions housing persons with intellectual disabilities etc are being closed in some places. This is impermissible. The guidelines need to specify that closing down of such institutions would not be tolerated during such times. These institutions should be monitored and physical distancing ensured within their premises.

The guidelines have suggested that the mechanism to resolve disability specific issues  at the state level rests with the State Commissioner for PwDs, who it is suggested will act as the State Nodal Authority. However, in many states including the national capital, Delhi, as you are aware, this post is lying vacant. Even at the Central level, in the absence of a full time  Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disabilities, you have been discharging additional responsibilities.

Lastly, while the guidelines do recognise that information is the key in combating the pandemic and also emphasises on information being made available in accessible formats, it would have served better if it has specifically underlined that PDF versions are not accessible to all people with visual impairment and text versions are preferable.

We are sure that in the interest of fighting the pandemic, the guidelines would be strengthened, incorporating these and other suggestions that may be received from organisations and persons with disabilities. Specific concerns of children and women with disabilities also need to be addressed.

(Muralidharan)

General Secretary

cc: Shri Thawar Chand Gehlot, Minister for Social Justice & Empowerment, GOI

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