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Full Text of interview with Subhash Chandra Vashishth What motivated you to take up the cause of Disability Rights?

Right through my childhood, I grew up as a guardian of my younger sister who acquired hearing impairment as a result of an ear infection that went awry. It was she who later became my motivation to work for the cause. I had seen the shortcomings in the systems. The problems that she faced at every step in her life right from quality education to gainful employment were immense and were sufficient to discourage any one from trying any further.

Has your family supported you in all your endeavors? Yes, my family has been a great pillar of support in my entire endeavor for they had been party to the struggle that we faced in garnering support and opportunities for my sister in a disabling environment around the apathy of both the community and the government to the precarious conditions and lack of opportunities to persons with disabilities in general. What were/are/have been your biggest hurdles/challenges in bringing all your plans to action? In general, it is lack of awareness about disability among people in the community and prevailing apathy at all levels that often forces persons with disabilities and their families to live in isolation - in their own ghettos. Disability then becomes a problem of just the person and his family. This lack of community action and support becomes a big hurdle in providing an enabling and equitable environment to grow and prosper. This was a major hurdle that we faced at every step. As a Consultant at the All India Confederation of the Blind, how are you finding the progress in the quality of the work carried on by the organization? AICB is a 30 year old confederation of grass root and state level organizations of blind persons and working with the Blind and Visually Impaired persons with over 22 affiliates in India while I just happened to associate with them some 8 years ago. I have observed it making tremendous impact not only in the lives of children and young adults who get educated and trained in vocational skills in AICB units but also in the lives of children, women and the elderly blind persons living in rural areas with no or very scanty services available through its CBR programmes. AICB has received Best NGO in the Disability Sector (1996), its Braille Printing Press was adjudged as Best in the country (2008). My role with the organization has been limited to the advocacy work for the rights of persons with vision impairment to facilitate redressal of their grievances and injustices and securing their rights through use of advocacy tools including judicial interventions. I saw a tremendous faith that is posed by the blind

persons and their family members in the leadership of AICB. For more information on its activities, you may visit www.aicb.in Where do you see its future? What is the secret behind its success?

AICB strongly believes that like any other person, the vision impaired persons also possess immense potential and skills and without taking these teeming millions on board, no inclusive development can be worthwhile not only in India but across the globe. Organization reach where there leaders take them. I have been personally impressed by Mr. MK Rastogi (the then Chair Advocacy Cell) & Mr. JL Kaul, the Secretary General of AICB and other blind leaders at the helms of the affairs of AICB and I am very sure that in the days to come, the organization in association with its affiliates and other national organizations will reach the last blind person in the country to empower him to unlock his potential. What are the special needs of the disabled which we as a society have failed to address? I dont think there are any special needs of the disabled. Their needs are as natural and basic as are expected of their non-disabled counterparts. However, it is the methods of fulfilling those needs in our society which are very restricted rather than being universal. For example a building with retrofitted ramp on the entrance may be termed as special, but a universally designed building with step free access and seamless connectivity within and outside to wheelchairs will be friendly to all. Thus it is better to look at the environmental barriers and address them with universal design solutions rather than terming the needs of persons with disability as special. Also I feel the prejudices and misconceptions prevailing in society about the abilities of persons with disabilities are the biggest impediments in the process of unfolding the immense capacity of the persons with disabilities - and particularly the persons with vision impairment- to be able to contribute to the national development. Therefore, the first step is to acknowledge their abilities and give them nourishing and enabling environment so that they can realize their full potential. This is something we all as responsible members of society and the government can do. We have several live examples of persons with disabilities who have proved their competence when given enabling opportunities.

You have founded the Dooars Institute of Disabled, Jaigaon, Jalpaiguri. Tell us about the hurdles which had to faced peculiar to the founding of this institute. It was in the year 1998-99 while I was still serving in the Indian Air Force, that I saw few hearing impaired children begging and being mistreated in Jaigaon a bordering Indian town near Bhutan. I spoke to people around and found there were no services in a radius of 150 kms and the nearest centre was the district town of Jalpaiguri. And immediately I thought of doing something for those children often found at the bus terminus or in the market seeking alms. I discussed the issue with my colleague Ram Prakash Misra and he too seemed very supportive of the idea. Soon we reached out to those children and then met their parents to plan for some intervention. The credibility of being in defence services worked very well and we got support from local leaders, market association and religious bodies. We launched Dooars Institute of the Disabled and began teaching the children in a rented premises. However, we soon realized that the call of duty of Air Force in forward areas did not allow us to continue it for long. The service rules did not allow us to mingle with surrounding hamlets considering it as a security issue since I was stationed in a sensitive defence unit. My friend and I gradually became

aware that we had to make a choice between the project & the Air Force service. It was a difficult decision to make with family not in favor of quitting the stable defence service but we both decided to go ahead with the challenging project and quit the Government job. By October 1999, we both had bid adieu to the Air Force and begun reaching out to remote tribal areas to do surveys and assessments of children and adults with disabilities. Typical problems we faced were of language, the local language prevalent were Bangla, Nepali and Adivasi that we did not know. But we resolved that problem with help of local volunteers. Subsequently, sustaining the project financially and finding a trained special educator and other staff became a huge hurdle. We put in all our monies that we got from the Air Force, however, soon that also exhausted since the recurring expenditure were constant while there was no financial support from either Government or a corporate. We approached several organizations but none was keen to support this venture in the remote area where there was no visibility for them. Process of Government grants is tedious and full of bureaucratic hurdles. And the grants that you get are so meager that you cant run such services efficiently. No educator will come and join you for a paltry sum offered under the grants! And till date all our grant applications have failed to get any response from Government. The system of grant of funds is not transparent especially in states and has many political considerations. We resolved the financial crises by involving the local market associations to fund a small amount on a regular basis and which is working very fine even today. This has resulted in community ownership of the project.

Law Related Questions The PwD Act provides for a lot of schemes for the disabled empowerment. Why then the disabled not yet found refuge under it? Existing PwD Act though primarily based on a charity model is a wonderful piece of legislation to empower persons with disabilities in the existing system. However, for a long time no schemes were framed by the appropriate governments that were required to be frame under the Law. When stakeholders knocked the doors of judiciary, a few were notified, but most of these schemes remain only on paper and have not materialized many benefits for the stakeholders. There are around six schemes under the PwD Act that the Govt. has announced. Incentives to employers in the private sector for providing regular employment to PwDs is one scheme under which the Government makes payment of the employer's contribution to the EPF and ESI for the first three years, as an incentive, in return of employment of persons with disabilities with monthly wage up to Rs 25000/- per month. However there have not been many takers of this scheme. Similarly other schemes such CRCs (Composite Regional Centers) for persons with disabilities and DDRC (District Disability rehabilitation centers have been more like another Government department restricted to identification /assessment of disabilities through camps and issuance of wheelchair and other aids. This has not been effective in redressing the problems of the persons with disabilities in India. A recent scheme of funding Universities, Training institutions, State Secretariats etc to make their buildings barrier free has found few takers but the problem is that tomorrow every government department will look at Ministry of Social Justice to provide fund for making their premises accessible! This is no solution. Planning and executing a barrier free environment has to be internalized in the

building maintenance plans by the concerned department rather than passing the buck to social justice ministry. This model is bound to fail. Actually, there has not been any sincere effort on the part of the appropriate Governments to sufficiently budget for the schemes and also to bring in rationally designed need based schemes. Its irony that to get the scheme under Section 30 of the Act, a law suit had to be filed in the Delhi High Court and what came hurriedly as the scheme was nothing new but reiteration of few existing provisions! The pensions and scholarships provided to the disabled as per the notifications by state governments are meager, as compared to todays economic situation. Do you think a legal intervention is needed in this regard? It is true that the pensions and scholarships are paltry and not related to cost of living. There is huge variation in the pensions given by various states that ranges from Rs. 200 to Rs. 1000 per month. The state has been hiding behind legislative loop holes such as within the limits of their economic capacity & development. The purpose of non-employment allowances is to sustain persons with disabilities which is not possible with meager sums. Pension allowance should be at least equal to the prevailing minimum wage rates when it comes to persons with disabilities. This is keeping in mind that the expenses incurred by persons with disabilities on travel, medical and maintenance of assistive aids & equipments etc are more when compared to similarly placed non-disabled persons. However, the government has not given any serious thought to it under the garb of lack of resources. This is a policy decision and must be taken by the legislature. According to you, what is the biggest challenge on the legal front being faced by the disabled in todays society? The legal system today is costly, cumbersome and slow & has many loopholes. Most often justice get delayed which equals to justice denied. Though the courts have come forward to rescue the PwD in several remarkable cases but not all persons with disabilities have the courage, means and wherewithal to come to the courts. Another challenge on the legal front is that the there is a serious dearth of lawyers with experience and knowledge of disability laws in India. Even the judiciary is not aware about the capabilities of persons with disabilities. There is a general perception in society that persons with disabilities lack capacity and must be the recipient of sympathy. This belief often reflects in judgements delivered by even several good judges. The language used in the judgment projects charity towards the disabled and in some cases even derogatory languages have been used to refer to them. Such case laws do more harm than good to the cause of disability equality. Due to repetitive failures on the part of executive, the disabled are forced to knock the doors of judiciary and the system becomes defensive and anti disabled labeling them as problem pots. The environment becomes hostile to them. Such a vicious cycle is not in the interest of persons with disabilities in longer run as they are labeled for no fault of theirs. Are you satisfied with the governments interventions in mainstreaming the disabled? No, not at all! The Government has been just doing lip service to the cause of mainstreaming disabilities. There is so much on paper and in plans, however, when it comes to implementation, its pathetic. The impact of government intervention can be gauged by the number of people empowered- we continue to

find a staggering number not even possessing a disability certificate! The certificate is the first document that entitles a person to avail schemes that meant for their empowerment. In Delhi alone, there is a large number of persons wait listed in Government hospitals awaiting their turn for assessment for issuance of a disability Certificate. One can easily guess what might be the condition in the other states! Is the government partnering with NGOs working in the field and thus cashing in on the synergy of such partnership? If not, what do you think is the reason? If yes, has it succeeded? (As it does in conducting social and financial audits) Yes, the Government has been partnering with NGOs by seeking their involvement and advise in the programmes and policies which I think is a good practice. The reason is that while NGOs have the strong motivation, commitment and technical knowledge, they lack infrastructure and funds to run services at large scale which the government possesses. However, in several cases we find that the primary services in the domain of Government are left to the NGOs. In the name of partnership, the government seems abdicating its responsibilities. That is no solution. It has to be emphasized that it is the State alone which has the duty and authority to ensure basic rights to all persons with disabilities. NGOs are only facilitators and triggers and cannot replace the state. Do you find the need of governments assistance in carrying on with your agenda? If yes, has the government supported? As I said earlier that it is government which has the primary responsibility to plan and budget for all initiatives to empower and rehabilitate persons with disabilities in the community. If NGOs or other institutions have taken up such a work on their volition, it is no replacement for governments responsibility. However, the Government can for sure improve the quality of their work by associating with and supporting the developmental agenda. This doesnt happen most of the times. What do you think is the solution for governmental apathy regarding the empowering the disabled? There are several reasons and therefore solutions. Ours is a democracy and the policies, decisions largely depend on the vote bank politics and the pressure from constituencies that the elected leaders represent. The constituency called persons with disabilities is scattered and disorganized; hence their voice is weak and fails to get the required attention. Our state being a welfare state has the obligation to look after the needs of the marginalized segments such as disabled who are by law equal right holders. Government has changed the name of the ministry from Min. of Welfare to Min. of Social Justice & Empowerment But approach continues to be of welfare, charity and sympathy rather than rights based. Thirdly, the Government is in effect run by bureaucrats who take active routine decisions on matters related to disability. And I find there is utter lack of awareness on such issues among the decision makers. This is another reason of government apathy. Therefore, there is a need of constant sensitization of decision makers both in political and bureaucratic circle. Lastly, there is a systemic failure to check accountability. Despite best rules and policies, the accountability is seldom questioned unless the court intervenes. There is a need to create systems within the executive to set accountability so that the mandate is respected and fulfilled.

What are the practical legal solutions to mainstream the disabled into society? We dont need a new set of legal solutions. If the existing laws and policies are implemented in right earnest, it will make the mainstreaming process simple. Taking the law to the doors of the stakeholders and generating awareness among them about their rights, entitlements and duties should be taken up on priority. It would be worthwhile to consider a single window system for redressal of grievances of persons with disabilities. Special benches in the High Courts and at lower courts level to hasten up the cases can be a great step as we find cases of denial of rights continue to pile up in the list of pending cases. Besides this, district and block level committee on disability issues can not only bring much needed awareness and mainstream the issue but it will also provide cheaper, accessible and less formal conciliatory systems to address the issues faced by persons with disabilities. Another worthwhile solution is to have persons with disabilities in all such forums so that there is an element of ownership also in the process.

Though there are laws for equal participation and opportunities for the disabled, they have miserably failed in implementation. What is the solution? It is said that Law is an ass, it doesnt work unless kicked in to action We need aware executive so that they can fulfill their legal mandate. Also as I earlier said, the solutions are found in the problem itself. Systemic measures need to be created in the executive that the laws are implemented in the right earnest. On the stakeholders front, there is a need to constantly remind the executive of their obligations. The coordination committees under the persons with disabilities act have failed to work since it constitutes majorly the bureaucrats who are happy not to talk about their failures and omissions. Hence there are very less meetings that happen and if at all they happen, the members very often remain absent with zero accountability. Therefore, the answer lies in creating effective systems within executive to check that the mandate is respected and implemented. Involvement of stakeholders in such system is an absolute must. How long will it take to implement this solution? It will precisely depend on the political will and efficacy of the system created.

Do you think amending the existing Disability Laws is the right solution? If not, what is the right solution? In light of insights that we have gained in to the working of the existing disability Act through a long use in the courts of law and also in light of the path breaking UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that India has signed and ratified, I feel that the existing law needs to be amended/ changed to plug in the loopholes and make it more effective. Such a amendment is also necessitated to harmonize it with the UN Convention by shifting from charity and welfare based to that of rights based. I also think that it is not only the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 that impacts the lives of persons with disabilities in India, there are a host of other laws including procedural laws such as CPC and CrPC, IPC, Evidence Act and matrimonial laws, industrial laws, and host of other laws including subordinate legislation that directly and indirectly deal with their lives hence, need to be amended and changed in light of the new UN Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities. The government has not yet

thought about it and the whole attention is on one disability law which is absolutely not a complete answer. Another area of concern is the lack of awareness about the laws. We have seen the best of laws remain on paper unimplemented due to lack of awareness among masses and officialdom. What can the entire legal fraternity including law students do to alleviate the maladies of the disabled? The minimum that the entire legal fraternity could do is to believe in the capabilities of persons with disabilities and spread awareness among them about their rights and duties. Very often the persons with disabilities also become passive recipients of services and lack initiatives to move ahead which is not a good sign. Therefore, it is important to also remind them about their constitutional obligations and duties. On our part we can read more about the disability legislation and update ourselves so as to be helpful to persons with disabilities. Bar associations, law colleges and law firms could organized workshops, field study programmes and awareness drives for their own colleagues and for the benefit of not only the disabled persons, but other stakeholders such as Police, Government officials, students etc. They could also network with the organizations of the disabled persons and show solidarity with them in their fight for restoration of the rights of persons with disabilities.

The Indian Judiciary has failed to create an inclusive environment. Why do you think this has happened? An inclusive environment doesnt mean accessible building alone where litigants with disabilities could reach easily but also an environment where they feel included. This necessarily means that the litigants see a judge with disability hearing cases and delivering judgments; where they see lawyers with disabilities argue cases with ease; where they see an accused person with disability given reasonable accommodation; where they see that they are a part of the system and not just objects of pity and charity. I dont see it happening! Most courts, except the one which are recently built- such as Dwarka & Saket District Court Complexes in Delhi or with some alterations, the Delhi High Court Building where you find that the physical barriers to some extent have been addressed. Otherwise across nation, the courts at all levels continue to be physically inaccessible to the elderly and the persons with disabilities. Even today we do not have sign language interpreters in the courts or police stations for making the judicial processes accessible to deaf persons. We dont have system in place where a blind judge could optimally function; our court libraries do not have Braille books or Books and citations in CD format for the benefit of blind users. Court and Bar websites continue to be inaccessible with scanty regard to the W3C Guidelines on Web Access. Our judges and lawyer fraternity use a language that is demeaning and derogatory to persons with disabilities. There is still a mass scale lack of awareness about disability laws among lawyers and judicial officers who are expected to take up their cases. The posts in judiciary reserved for persons with disabilities are lying vacant as the Judiciary has taken no active initiative to recruit them except for just identifying the seats under the pressure from the law. The reason that I see for these and several other shortcomings- which I cannot reduce here due to lack of time and space - is lack of awareness about the abilities of persons with disabilities among the judiciary and the bar both. I have personally being trying in Delhi to see that judiciary become more

inclusive by recruiting Visually Impaired judges on the reserved seats, however it has not yielded must result. There is an urgent need to have these issues addressed if we want to see an inclusive judiciary and I am ready to do my bit in assisting the Judiciary at least in Delhi to begin with. The number of students wanting to advocate for the rights of the disabled is dwindling. In this scenario, what is the future of Disability Laws? The lawyer earns from legal practice and makes his both ends meet. Therefore; it is not possible for lawyers not to charge their clients at all. Its a question of bread and butter! On the other hand not all persons with disabilities who come to courts are in position to bear the expenses of their cases. Even a few, who are earning well and can afford to pay, do not want to pay and continue to enjoy the free ships they receive from society. This is the main cause of dwindling number of lawyers taking up disability rights cases. In such a scenario, many users end up approaching Legal Services authority for a free legal aid. The lawyers with the Legal aid are not very informed about disability laws and many a times the cases suffer. However, this also generates some amount of awareness among lawyers who are taking up cases for Legal Services authority! Given the fact that the mainstream practice is lucrative in comparison to human rights /disability rights practice, it is natural that less number of advocates would be attracted towards this cause. Still I dont find the future of disability law practice in jeopardy. There is constant rise in the awareness due to a number of cases filed on the subject. There are few lawyers who take up these cases pro-bono. Also, a number of voluntary organizations have formed Advocacy Units who extend a helping hand to the cause. I agree that many competent but career oriented lawyers may not be available to practice disability law, but a good number of dedicated and committed lawyers continue to do their bit and raise the bar. What message do you want to give to the law students, who aspire to work in the field of Disability Laws and Human Rights? I would suggest the law students to follow a middle path rather than taking extremes. It would be good idea to also take up occasionally cases of human rights as a spirited citizen in addition to your mainstream practice. Also, given the number of job opportunities thrown up before the persons with disabilities, you may come across clients with disabilities who can pay your fee too! And nothing compares the satisfaction you that get when you are able to be of some assistance to a fellow human being. Some may find even this, full of charity, but I feel that this is more to enrich yourself spiritually as a human being. Do you think the law firms are positive with persons with disability?

I havent had the experience of dealing with law firms employing or refusing to engage services of advocates with disabilities. However, most law firms that I am aware of are not very inclined to engage disabled people. Law firms are also social institutions and it only reflects the general opinion of society that disabled people are not capable. When questioned, the reply that comes from them is, why take a

lawyer with disabilities and invite problems when there are so many non-disabled law graduates available for hire! Anything you want to share with us as a human being, lawyer, Human Rights Activist? Persons with disabilities are persons first and deserve an equal respect & acceptance from their fellow beings and opportunities in life. We need to break the myth and misperception that persons with disabilities lack capacity. A person with disability can excel like anyone else if given an enabling environment and there are several examples to prove this. God has been very kind to us that as lawyers, we can do our bit for the cause of disability rights. Let us not loose on this opportunity!