For once, there was cause for hope with the Budget 2018-19. India was coming up to a year of having passed two important legislations purportedly focusing on the rights of persons with disabilities – the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, and the Mental Healthcare Act.
While disability is a state subject, most of disability law and policy has been enacted as part of implementing of treaties, agreements and conventions with foreign countries (Entry 14, List I). Consequently, most government programmes and policies for persons with disabilities have been central government programmes.
Every budget of this government has been followed closely by the disability sector. The Prime Minister, in his radio programmes and other speeches, has time and again committed to furthering the cause of persons with disabilities. In fact, the 2014 manifesto had a separate section for the “specially abled”:
There were glimmers of hope, including the fact that the NITI Ayog had developed a “three year action agenda” from 2017-19 to 2019-20, with a significant inclusion of the interests of persons with disabilities. Like all good plans, all that was needed was the financial backing to make this a reality. Unfortunately, the government priorities as seen from the speech made by the Finance Minister were not exactly encouraging.
There were exactly two relevant mentions for taxpayers with disabilities (who even pay GST on assistive devices): one, as a target group for the National Social Assistance Programme, second, clarifying that persons with disabilities will continue to receive their travel allowance irrespective of the reintroduction of the standard deduction in lieu of health and travel allowance.
Perhaps there was something to look forward to in the statement of expenditure of the department of disabilities? A large portion of the budget allocations go the “National Programme for the Welfare of Persons with Disabilities” which encompass several schemes and programmes for persons with disabilities.
This programme was earlier inclusive of several scholarship, fellowship and coaching schemes for students with disabilities in India and abroad. This year, the scholarship schemes have been combined into just one head, with an overall increase of Rs 8.2 crore. It is not clear how these scholarships will be made available.
However, if one goes by the NITI Ayog action plan of awarding at least 4,80,000 scholarships and fellowships to students with disabilities over the three year period of the plan, and assuming 1/3rd of the same (1,60,000 scholarships) are to be covered this financial year, this works out to approximately Rs 4728.75 per student, which is an extremely frugal amount considering the additional costs borne by students with disabilities on account of the barriers that they face on account of their impairments.
Two of the major areas in which persons with disabilities expect tangible change through the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act are awareness/sensitisation among the general public, and in employment. Unfortunately, both these areas see reduced or stagnant expenditure.
The aids and appliances scheme, which has repeatedly been used to much political mileage in the State of Gujarat, has seen a small increase in its allocation. Assistive device technology has progressed rapidly around the world, yet budgetary allocations to the Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation – which is the largest manufacturer and supplier of state-of-the-art Assistive Devices at affordable cost for Persons with Disabilities in India – remain stagnant at Rs 5 crore for the past few years.
Overall, the Department has only seen a 12% increase in allocations. This is particularly disturbing, as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act has actually been celebrated for increasing the categories of persons with disabilities who are eligible for social protection and other benefits, from the 1995 Act, that only recognised visual impairments (blindness and low vision), hearing impairments, locomotor impairments, intellectual impairments (referred to as “mental retardation”), persons cured of leprosy, and mental illness.
There is a huge increase of persons who will be brought under the umbrella of persons with disabilities and will therefore be eligible for social benefits, which seems to have been completely ignored by the government.
For example, with regard to the National Social Protection Programme, the Indira Gandhi Disability Pension Programme is already an existing programme whereby persons with disabilities receive ‘disability pension’. This programme has seen just a Rs 2.83 crore increment.
It is important to mention here that this programme, which has reportedly 1047827 beneficiaries, has traditionally excluded persons with mental illness from receiving pension. The numbers of persons who face psychosocial disability in this country is very high, and their effective inclusion would require more allocation.
Besides this, persons with thalassemia, hemophilia, autism, multiple sclerosis, learning disabilities, survivors of acid attacks, and several other groups are now under the purview of this law, and we have no idea how many of them are there in India, as the 2011 census was limited to the 1995 list only.
This gap, and the challenges of data collection on persons with disabilities, are duly noted by the NITI Ayog, which said that the “… first step towards empowering PWDs is obtaining a realistic estimate of the numbers of people who are coping with various types of disabilities.”
Indeed, an onerous, resource consuming task, but extremely necessary. Unfortunately, the three year action plan receives no budgetary sanction.
There are no mentions of new schemes, or expansion of existing schemes, under the new law either.
One of this government’s flagship schemes, the Accessible India Campaign, launched in 2014, is funded by the erstwhile Scheme for Implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act (SIPDA). This has seen an increase in allocation to Rs 300 crore, from Rs 257 crore (revised estimates) of last year. The SIPDA was for the implementation of the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act, whereby government establishments could seek requisitions from this fund to make their infrastructure accessible. Ideally, every Ministry should have make their own funds available for making their establishments accessible, as this is not only the concern of the Department of Disabilities.
The new law brings a wider number of bodies, including all public buildings, under the ambit of mandatory accessibility, and a proportionate budgetary provision could have made this a possibility.
All in all, there seems to again be a wide chasm between “what was to be” and “what probably will end up happening” in the run up to the next elections.
Amba Salelkar is a lawyer with the Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice. This article is based on a more thorough study of disability-budgeting conducted by Meenakshi B. and Sudha Ramamoorthy, also with Equals.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Main image: Protest by disability groups for the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill in December 2016.