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The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan/PWDs), on late June 2020, reached 7 selected NGOs through a letter. The said letter implied the amendment of Rights of Persons With Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016.

The letter titled, “Decriminalisation of Minor Offences for Improving Business Sentiment And Unclogging Court Processes – Amendment in RPWD Act, 2016” was seen as a blatant disregard for decades of work done by several activists, NGOs and previous government schemes.

This undoing had been facing backlash but the topic itself is not being seen in the light that PWDs would like to see it in. Due to the multitudes of letters, petitions, and criticism received by the government on even proposing the idea of amendment of the act, which PWDs and their supporters have worked for so long, the proposed amendments were called off on July 9th.

The government supposedly wanted to make the amendment just to facilitate the ease of doing business, and to invite foreign investment, and to facilitate easier conclusions to clogged court hearings. The business part also countered the Vocal for Local and Make in India narratives that have been in the trends of late following the Galwan Valley border clash between Indian and Chinese military troops.

There is a certain distinguishable narrative in the government’s intent that arose with these different areas of government’s interests in the economy. Coupled with the supposed amendment that the government wanted to pursue and go through with, there was an evident worry for PWDs.

The government wrote the letter to only seven different NGOs, namely, National Federation of Blind, National Association of Blind, National Association of Deaf, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, Action for Autism, Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust, and Indian Joint Organisation of Blind.

The letter explicitly says that the decriminalisation of the minor offences is one of the government’s major thrusts and how the imprisonments and penalisation of these minor offences under the RPWD Act is one of the major hindrances impacting investments from both domestic and foreign investors.

The letter sought comments, suggestions and objections to the proposal of amendments of the sections 89, 92(a), and 93, and decriminalisation of the offences under them and the selected NGOs was only given till July 10th to submit their recommendations.

Added to the amendment, the government also proposed, insertion of Section 95(a) which allowed the State and Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities to ‘compound offences’, besides, 95(a) also sought to propose that ‘where an offence has been compounded, the offender, if in custody shall be discharged and any proceeding in respect of such offence, shall be dropped’.

To understand what these sections cover, we must know what they cover. Here are the sections under scrutiny, from RPWD Act 2016:

Section 89. Punishment for contravention of provisions of Act or rules or regulations made thereunder.—Any person who contravenes any of the provisions of this Act, or of any rule made thereunder shall for the first contravention be punishable with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees and for any subsequent contravention with fine which shall not be less than fifty thousand rupees but which may extend to five lakh rupees.

Section 92. Punishment for offences of atrocities.—Whoever,— (a) intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a person with disability in any place within public view; 

(b) assaults or uses force to any person with disability with intent to dishonour him or outrage the modesty of a woman with disability;

(c) having the actual charge or control over a person with disability voluntarily or knowingly denies food or fluids to him or her;

(d) being in a position to dominate the will of a child or woman with disability and uses that position to exploit her sexually;

(e) voluntarily injures, damages or interferes with the use of any limb or sense or any supporting device of a person with disability;

(f) performs, conducts or directs any medical procedure to be performed on a woman with disability which leads to or is likely to lead to termination of pregnancy without her express consent except in cases where medical procedure for termination of pregnancy is done in severe cases of disability and with the opinion of a registered medical practitioner and also with the consent of the guardian of the woman with disability, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine.

Section 93. Punishment for failure to furnish information.—Whoever, fails to produce any book, account or other documents or to furnish any statement, information or particulars which, under this Act or any order, or direction made or given thereunder, is duty-bound to produce or furnish or to answer any question put in pursuance of the provisions of this Act or any order, or direction made or given thereunder, shall be punishable with fine which may extend to twenty-five thousand rupees in respect of each offence, and in case of continued failure or refusal, with a further fine which may extend to one thousand rupees for each day, of continued failure or refusal after the date of original order imposing the punishment of fine.

The given sections in the act are the backbones to inclusiveness, accessibility, and a step towards equal opportunities, the very things that PWDs have hitherto worked for.

The government using the failing Indian economy, which has been debated to be failing even before the pandemic, and the pandemic itself to flagrantly disregard the needs and conditions, let alone the humanity of PWDs, was seen as an atrocity in itself.

The audacity to let PWDs suffer in any case they face utter discrimination (of social, physical, mental or economical sorts), without turning on to the offenders or holding them accountable was seen as a violation of human rights by many. These were not seen as an assault to the rights of PWDs but also an assault to civil rights and liberties.

Bal Bahadur Subba, a founding member of the Sikkim Disability Community, a forum for PWDs, says, “This sounded ridiculous when I first heard of it. We face so many adversities anyway and to hear about the amendment of the RPWD act was just unacceptable.”

“Talking about Sikkim, we do not face such blatant challenges, but I do face some unintentional discrimination in my office sometimes, but we know that if the atrocities get intentional, we have the option to complain to the competent authorities,” he adds.

Further, he adds, “This was really a matter of concern and it also comes to show that the government feels like PWDs are disposable and not important, which is unacceptable.”

Though PWDs can now breathe a sigh of relief, the idea of the amendment itself comes to show that the government, when it comes to brass tacks between choosing Capital and Humanity, would not have hesitated to disregard humanity; an idea that has now been circulating among different activist groups.

“The amendment was an attempt to weaken the RPWD Act and was taking away the most important aspect of non-discrimination in the Rights of persons with disability Act. The excuse that the government was giving, was to promote ease of doing business and bring investment in the country, explains Arman Ali, Executive Director at NCPEDP.

“However, in legislations like RPWD Act, which is a social justice legislation, was not interfering in anything to do with ease of doing business. Ease of doing business is about permits is other permission, is about infrastructure, is about environment, electricity and so on. It has got nothing to do with disabled people. Offences against people with disabilities are not minor in nature and is a serious human rights violation.”

“This is what government had proposed and the sector and people with disabilities came together and vehemently opposed the amendment and that is how government has now taken it back,” adds Arman.

The government should focus on implementing and strengthening the RPWD act and not weakening it. It’s high time they start as it’s been 3 years of RPWD Act. All governments, including the centre, should be answerable of its non-implementation.

Sonam Diki, another founding and chamber member of SDC says, “I felt that is was a violation of human rights and if they’d have considered disabled people as a part of the society, accessibility and inclusiveness would’ve trumped any other thing.”

She adds, “We PWDs always dream of an inclusive society but without accessibility, it is an impossible dream. People do discriminate and humiliate PWDs but some of them don’t just because of the thought of the ramifications by the law and to propose such amendment is not only a violation of PWDs rights but a violation of human rights.”

The PWDs have now breathed a sigh of relief but the questions asked by activists, NGOs and people, in general, have been pouring in.

How long before the government seeks to amend other rights of marginalised populations? If today it was the PWDs, tomorrow it’ll be religious, ethnic or cultural minorities, women, children, or the LGBTQI+ community, or backward communities. The real question is, should business and economy trump accountability and inclusiveness?

Read more related articles:

How can PWDs be Atma-Nirbhar while incumbently needing a helping hand?

While nation battles COVID-19 through lockdown, PWDs become collateral damage

NCPEDP works with Sikkim Govt to explain RPWD act to all departments

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