Digital India, Skill India, Accessible India – all campaigns that promised transformation, inclusion and progress. These revolutionary ideas caught the imagination of the nation and raised expectations all around. This was the vision with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his first tenure as leader of this vast nation.
These campaigns also triggered hope and anticipation amongst blind and visually impaired citizens. The push towards Digital India called for Digital Governance, Digital Infrastructure and Digital Literacy. All this sounded like music to a disability activist like me. It promised to be a game-changer for the blind and visually impaired population of the country. Technology such as screen-reading software, artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine language could now seamlessly connect the blind and visually impaired people with this new emerging Digital India.
Skill India was yet another pet project of the government. It was launched to skill the millions of unemployed youth of the country. One of the exciting features of this campaign was the promise to train and provide employment to 25 lakh youth with disability by 2022. Towards this end, a dedicated ministry was established. Sector Skill Councils were set up including an exclusive Sector Skill Council for persons with disability. The National Skill Development Council was formed. Schemes were formulated and substantial funds were allocated. The government had clearly identified unemployment as a major area of concern and had demonstrated intent and commitment to address the issue. The heartening aspect of this campaign for me was the inclusion of disability as an integral part of the endeavour.
The icing on the cake was the Accessible India campaign that was launched soon after with the mandate to ensure accessibility of physical infrastructure, ICT and transportation. This campaign spearheaded by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment told us in the disability sector that we were not being ignored.
In 2016, the Parliament formally passed the Rights for Persons With Disability Act (RPWD Act 2016). This was widely welcomed. The disability sector had been advocating for this ever since the UN Convention for Persons With Disability (UNCRPD) had come into being. The RPWD Act 2016 was the harmonisation of the Indian law with the UNCRPD. This law among other things endeavoured to provide the person with disability an identity, access to education, employment, information and infrastructure. The law also had various provisions to fight discrimination at all levels.
On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let us take a quick look at these campaigns and where exactly does the Nation stand as far as the disabled are concerned, especially persons with vision impairment. While the government intent appears to be visionary, the execution has been hugely flawed. The shoddy implementation clearly reflects lack of awareness, poor understanding of the domain of life with blindness and perhaps an indifference towards persons with disability. When we speak of persons with disability there is baggage that people carry, the bureaucrats and the technocrats being no exception.
Digital India by and large has been disappointing. There are a number of digital platforms such as websites, apps, e-wallets and e-content that are inaccessible to screen-reader users. Ironically even the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment sends out correspondence by email that is inaccessible. Making digital platforms accessible has been an ongoing battle. Talking of governance, the UDID card was launched as a tool to register and certify persons with disability across the country. This is a great move but the execution has been slow. Besides several government organisations like the railways still insist on their own modes of certification. Talking of digital literacy, this is limited to the few organisations working with the blind.
Skill India over the years has become a numbers game and a race for funding. Focus has largely been on the so-called low hanging fruits – the hearing impaired and physically challenged. Even organisations that were purely working with blind people started training persons with other disabilities. I must point out here that blind people are academically more qualified than most other persons with disability. Further, the capacity to train blind and visually impaired people and the understanding of the kinds of jobs blind persons could be deployed in is dismal. It appears that not much planning has gone into the execution.
Accessible India was launched as a flagship initiative of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The print had a lot to offer but again the delivery has been disappointing. The Ministry had the opportunity to go out and drive accessibility agenda with all government departments. They instead chose to wait for people to approach them with accessibility needs.
Finally, the RPWD Act – though a wonderful document with fairly comprehensive provisions – has left the execution to the bureaucracy and the state bodies. This has literally killed the Act. There is no exclusive Chief Commissioner for Persons With Disability for the past two-odd years. This position today is given as additional responsibility to the Secretary of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Several states do not have a full-time State Commissioner. Each time a provision of the RPWD Act has to be implemented, the person with disability has to either produce the Act or the relevant circulars. It appears most of the implementing officials are unaware of the provisions. This is truly tragic.
Well, the government had put forward to the nation a promising and powerful vision. The tragedy is that the execution has lacked imagination, understanding, planning and conviction. I think a great vision has been handed over to either a disinterested or an incompetent bureaucracy to implement. The bottom-line is that a potential human resource is going to waste and the perception that people with disability are a liability continues.