disability rights

India's disability law is a step forward for rights of disabled when it could have been a giant leap

The Rights to Persons with Disabilities Bill, passed by both houses of Parliament last week, leaves much to be desired.

In a rare show of unity at the end of a stormy Parliament session, on December 16, the ayes in the Lok Sabha had it – the lower house followed the upper house in passing the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016. Close to a decade after it ratified the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007), which requires signatories to guarantee equality and all human rights to the disabled, India is finally just one presidential signature away from implementing a law to replace the toothless Persons with Disabilities Act 1995.

The soon-to-be law is, in many ways, an improvement upon the 1995 Act. The number of disabilities officially recognised have increased from seven to 21 and in a first, the law has provisions to protect those with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities and even acid-attack survivors. Those affected by Parkinsons, haemophilia, thalassemia and sickle-cell disease have also been included.

That the legislation is a step forward in upholding the rights of the disabled is undeniable. However, with its implementation, will we finally be satisfying the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

Voices not heard

The convention states that “Persons with Disabilities should have the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making processes about policies and programmes, including those directly concerning them”. It further says, “In the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the present convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues related to persons with disabilities, state parties shall closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organisations”.

Sadly, disability experts and NGOs were completely sidestepped as the government drafted this law. The government took the Persons with Disabilities Bill 2014, (which was readily available but not perfect in any way) introduced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and made amendments to it on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which were never shared with those in the disability sector.

It is this exclusion that has resulted in some very apparent weaknesses in the Bill. For example, clause 3(3) in the Bill states “no person with disability shall be discriminated on the ground of disability, unless it is shown that the impugned act or omission is appropriate to achieve a legitimate aim”. What the second part of this line means is unclear to me. What is clear, however, is that it definitely weakens the discrimination clauses.

The Bill does a good job of highlighting the social security needs of the disabled. It states that the government will help the disabled by providing aids and appliances, disability pensions, allowances for care givers and a comprehensive insurance scheme. This is music to our ears. What is less pleasant, however, is that instead of allocating a specific amount for this, the proposed law says “the appropriate government shall within the limits of it’s economic capacity and development” fund such schemes. This gives future governments a window to escape or reduce these provisions.

Provisions weakened

Significantly, the 2014 bill said those who violate the provisions of the legislation could be imprisoned for up to six months and fined Rs 10,000. Repeat offenders could face imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakh, or both. The amended Bill however does away with the prison terms, but retain the fines.

The Bill also lays an emphasis on accessibility of hospitals, schools and other educational institutions for the disabled. However, nothing will come of this if there are no timelines given to these places to develop the necessary infrastructure, in the form of ramps and the like. After all, The Accessible India campaign was launched in December 2015, with the aim of making the infrastructure of at least 50% of government buildings in each state capital accessible disabled-friendly by July 2018, but a year on, nothing has happened.

The 2014 bill talked about the appointment of a National and State Commission to protect the rights of the disabled and listen to their grievances. However, in the amended Bill, the commissions have been done away with. Instead, there will be a commissioner at the central and state levels, whose role too has been limited to an advisory one.

What is even more upsetting is that the government could have gone a step further from the 1995 Act by ensuring that such commissioners are disabled themselves and hence more sensitive to the needs of the community. This would have been a huge step towards embracing UN Convention for Rights of Persons of Disabilities. Instead of arguing why this is so important, I will just pose the following question: how would women rights organisations react if the women’s commissioner was a man?

Further, while the 2014 bill had provided for a 5% reservation for persons with disabilities in government jobs and educational institutes, the amended legislation has decreased this to 4% (an increase of just 1% from the 1995 Act).

Some progress

However, a positive amendment from the 2014 bill is with regard to the provision for guardianship to a “mentally ill person”. Both bills state that if a district court finds that someone who is mentally ill cannot take care of themselves or take legally binding decisions, it may appoint a guardian for the person. The 2016 version however also allows a disabled person who is aggrieved by the appointment of a legal guardian to complain against it to an appellate authority – the original bill had no such provision.

What is also disappointing about the Bill is a lack of ambition. The launch of campaigns by the current government like Make in India, to boost manufacturing in the country, Digital India, to increase web connectivity and Start up India to encourage entrepreneurs an indicator of the increasingly important role the private sector is playing in the Indian economy. Sadly, this Bill (unlike Western laws) does nothing to make private sector enterprises and establishments more accessible to the disabled. So, status quo is likely to be maintained at private work places, markets, theatres and ATMs amongst other spaces, most of which do not have disabled-friendly infrastructure.

Disabled-unfriendly Parliament

However, the one thing that was most apparent during Friday’s proceedings in the Lok Sabha was how the very functioning of the Parliament spares no thought for the disabled.

As we were glued to our TVs as the Bill was being debated, my speech- and hearing-impaired friends were clueless about the proceedings as there was no sign language interpretation available. I also shudder to think how they would participate in a voice vote. My visually challenged friends had it even worse, as the Bill and the amendments to it were not available in a format legible to them.

That the Bill will soon become a law is a step forward and I am glad the disabled in India finally have something to celebrate. However, let’s not for a moment become complacent and believe that battle has been won. It has just begun.

Nipun Malhotra is the founder of www.wheelsforlife.in a wheelchair-donating platform. He can be followed on Twitter @nipunmalhotra

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.