On December 19, I excitedly left my home in Gurgaon to attend a national workshop by the Election Commission in New Delhi on making elections accessible for Persons with Disabilities. My excitement soon led to frustration as I learnt that the Gurgaon border had been sealed (ironically due to a protest in Delhi). This ensured that I was stuck in my car for three hours and was unable to get to the venue. If I wasn’t disabled, I could have just walked through the barricade and then figured a way to reach the venue. Being on a wheelchair, that obviously wasn’t an option for me.

The Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens have dominated news cycles, social media and the streets with both pro- and anti-NRC protests taking place over the last few weeks. Countless op-eds have been written, people from across different fields have shared their opinions. However, Persons with Disabilities and the impact the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act will have on them has been completely ignored.

As per the 2011 Census, 2.21% of the country’s population is disabled. The concerned departments in the government itself consider this figure a gross underestimation, with the World Health Organisation going as far as stating that 15% of the world’s population is disabled. Social stigmas ensure that Persons with Disabilities are locked up at home and not officially recorded in India’s population records. Infrastructure and access challenges further prevent Persons with Disabilities from accessing government departments and having the basic records.

For example, the Universal Disability ID Card was launched in June 2018 as a common card for all welfare schemes targeted towards the disabled. Delhi has 2.3 lakh disabled people, as per official records, but it managed to issue only 22 cards in the year after this scheme was launched. Persons with intellectual disabilities face further challenges in terms of agency and legal guardianship, which cause unique problems for them too.

Overlooking specific needs

Fearing that the implementation of the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act could lead to many Persons With Disability being declared “illegal immigrants”, I decided to file an RTI and get hold of the Model Detention Centre Manual 2019 issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. To my extreme disappointment, the word “disability” is not even mentioned or considered in the manual, leave alone “reasonable accommodation” to ensure the basic dignity of Persons with Disabililties.

Nipun Malhotra, the author of this article, delivers a talk. Credit: Nipun Malhotra

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has noted, “The specific needs of refugees with disabilities are often overlooked, especially in the early phases of humanitarian emergencies. Persons with disabilities may be exposed to discrimination, exploitation, and sexual and gender-based violence. They may be excluded from support services, or have difficulties accessing these services. Children with disabilities may be excluded from education, and both children and older persons with disabilities face greater risk of abuse, neglect, abandonment, exploitation, health problems and family separation.”

Accessibility and healthcare needed for survival and basic dignity are a norm amongst the nations that are signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951 (India is not a signatory). The United States goes a step further by having accessible communication standards (material in Braille, sign language interpreters etc) for detainees, while Greece provides Persons with Disability a monthly allowance.

Jail conditions

Last year, as per the directions of the Delhi High Court, I conducted an accessibility audit of the Tihar, Rohini and Mandoli jails. I was shocked to see the lack of accessibility and an absence of a system to involve Persons with Disability in daily activities in the prisons. I came across convicts who had been lying on beds in the medical centre for years for want of a wheelchair. Others were bullied and socially ostracised by the jail officials, restricted to their own cells.

And these were jails. Occupants here were at the very least accused and at best convicted. Persons at Detention Centres will be at best be those who could not arrange all the documents required to “prove” their citizenship. At the worst, they would be individuals considering India to be a better country than the one they were citizens of and moving here for a better future.

Whether you like it or dislike it, the Citizenship Amendment Act is a religious one. Those supporting this act are doing so to protect Hindus allegedly being prosecuted in neighbouring Muslim countries. Those against this act fear that this act will be misused against Muslims in India, declaring them foreign residents. Ironically, it is disability that is the unifying minority across minorities. It does not discriminate on the basis of religion, caste, colour, social status or gender. Besides, we all get disabled with age. I do hope that we aren’t as always forgotten if and when the country goes through this change.

Nipun Malhotra, a wheelchair user, is CEO, NipmanFoundation and Founder, Wheels For Life. His Twitter handle is @nipunmalhotra.