For the past five days, disability rights activists in Chennai have been protesting in front of the Tamil Nadu State Co-operatives Election Commission in Teynampet. The issue in question is the rejection of a visually impaired candidate’s application for the upcoming co-operative elections in Tamil Nadu.
P Saravanan, a visually impaired binder at the Central Library in Dharmapuri had applied for the position of Director at the Dharmapuri Public Library Employees and Thrift Co-operative Society, which lends loans to employees of public libraries in the district. However, his application was rejected — according to activists — based on an interpretation of the Co-operative Societies Act.
“A proviso in the Tamil Nadu Co-operative Societies Act, section 34, states that a candidate must be able to read and write in Tamil or English or any other language accepted by the State. Saravanan has studied up to class 12 and can read and write in Braille. However, based on a limited interpretation of the proviso, the Election Commission for Co-operatives rejected his application based only on his disability,” said Karl Marx, a High Court lawyer who is providing legal aid in the issue.
Saravanan also contested and won the post of Director back in 2008. When he applied for the same in 2013, his application was rejected citing disability.
“I was handed the order for the post of Director back in 2008. However, due to unfortunate circumstances, I could not assume the seat as the election results were declared invalid throughout the state. It was very surprising that in 2013, they rejected my application for a post I had won before,” Saravanan told TNM.
When Saravanan’s application was rejected this year, a few people approached the Co-operatives Election Commission in Teynampet on March 21 to discuss the issue.
“They immediately sent us back saying the said candidate’s application will be accepted. However, the catch in their statement was that they could reject the application after due consideration. This, we failed to understand,” said Deepak, State President of the December 3 Movement, a disability rights organization and one of the protesters in Teynampet.
The protests were also supported by Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi.
“The law does allow him (Saravanan) to contest in the election and being differently abled is not a criterion to deny him that chance. He is educated and can read braille. I am ready to ensure my complete support for the cause and am in constant touch with the protesters,” she told the media.
Protestors at Teynampet included members of December 3, Tamil Nadu Association for the Rights of All Types of Differently Abled and Care Givers (TARATDAC) and the National Federation for the Blind. On March 27 -- the first day of the protest – the police arrested close to 130 people who gathered near the Co-operative EC and detained them in community halls on the outskirts of the city.
“We were housed in SS Mahal, a community hall in Pallikaranai. Before this, we were being kept in Thanthai Periyar community hall in Perungalathur. Another group is protesting in T Nagar on the same issue,” said Deepak.
This continued every day after that till Sunday. Protesters would gather in the morning to protest, the police would detain them, and they would be let off in the evening. However, on one of the days, although they were let off, the protesters refused to leave till Saravanan’s application was accepted.
However, even the community halls they were being detained in were allegedly not disabled-friendly.
“The community halls where the protestors are being detained are not disabled-friendly. Even if it is just from morning to evening, there are no western toilets. Even if it’s not an official detention, there are a few conditions that must be followed in arresting disabled people. The place of detention should be disabled-friendly. There should be ramps and not staircases, there should be western toilets. These conditions are not met in their (protestors’) detention,” Karl said.
The status of Saravanan’s application
Deepak said that the loophole the authorities are trying to use is the person’s ability to read and write.
“According to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2016, no person should be discriminated based on disabilities for contesting seats in any civic body arising out of the acts of a parliament or state legislature. However, the Election Commission officials are stuck on the Co-operative proviso which states that said candidate should read and write. Contesting this, even the State Disability Rights Commissioner, Arun Rai, argued against the Election Commission’s stance, saying that a person need not see to read and write and what is important is their ability to comprehend. This is our argument as well,” he said.
The elections were scheduled to take place on Monday, but the State Co-operatives Election Commission finally took note of the situation and called off the elections to the said post.
“The Commission has stopped elections for the specific post for which Saravanan has applied. In another case, elections to the administrative posts of Mint Co-operative society in North Chennai have also been called off after another visually impaired candidate M Mohan’s application was rejected on the same premise,” added Deepak.
“Either they have to accept this candidate’s applications or keep those positions for which disabled candidates are contesting in abeyance. That way, we can seek legal recourse to the issue. Not doing either is unfair to the rights of the disabled. Now, they have called off the elections so that is a small achievement for us,” Deepak added.