In July this year, the Election Commission of India (ECI) conducted a two-day National Consultation on Accessible Election in Delhi with the aim of making elections accessible for Persons with Disability (PwDs) in India. Five states went to polls in December after that, including Telangana, but an RTI query reveals that the EC has not acted upon any of the recommendations specific to persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities across the country.
The RTI was filed by Dr Satendra Singh, a disability rights activist who had taken part in the national consultation organised by the EC. The doctor pointed out the inaction by the ECI could be due to the outdated legal interpretation used in the Representation of the People Act, 1950 to describe people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities.
Under section 16 (b) of the Representation of the People Act, 1950, a person’s right to vote is disqualified if the person “is of unsound mind and stands so declared by a competent court”.
“We must understand that our society presumes that persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities cannot make decisions, equating mental and intellectual illness with an unsound mind. The former is a medical condition and an 'unsound mind' is a legal finding,” said Singh, opining that the ECI could be sidestepping the whole issue related to voting rights of people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities due to the legal work involved.
However, in 2007, India ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) a legally binding set of compliance rules meant to promote rights of PwDs in member countries. The ratification eventually led to the formulation of two new disability legislation – the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and Mental Health Care Act 2017 in India.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 now identifies 21 different types of disabilities, including intellectual and psychosocial disabilities conforming to international standards. They include intellectual disability, mental illnesses, autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy.
The national consultation was undertaken by the ECI to bring together PwDs, disability rights activists, government agencies and chief electoral officers of various states together with the idea of making elections more accessible. At the consultation , a group was specifically made to discuss intellectual disability including autism, specific learning disability and mental illness and recommendations were presented to the ECI, said, Singh. But the RTI shows that the ECI never acted upon these recommendations but was selective going with what was possible for them.
“These things take time to implement, it’s true we did not get any specific orders but we did take up a lot more initiative this election. We have come a long way, the topic of voting rights of PwDs was never a talking point in previous elections. It will be done but will take some time,” said an official with the Telangana EC, speaking to TNM.
The Telangana EC, for instance, took steps to ensure that persons with locomotor disabilities get added to the electoral rolls and even arranged pick up and drop facilities by tying up with civil society groups to arrange assistance for PwDs. They even launched an app that facilitated PwD voters in Hyderabad to book transport to their polling stations and back.
“The ECI reply to the RTI does not show any concrete directive from their side on this issue and we feel like cheated as to why the National Consultation was planned when they can't pass any directive in writing,” said Singh, who wants the ECI to take an initiative to make elections accessible for all PwDs and not be selective in their approach.