Power to the differently abled

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014 was passed by the Rajya Sabha today following a discussion on the official amendments. This comes at a time when there has been a lot of public debate on the disruptions of the Winter Session of the Parliament, and the lack of discussion on legislations like the Taxation Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2016. In this context, the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014 has demonstrated the rigour of the legislative scrutiny of the Parliament.

The Bill repeals the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 and has been brought in to honour India’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This requires every signatory to make appropriate changes in law and policy to give effect to rights of persons who are differently abled. Introduced in the Rajya Sabha on February 7, 2013, it has undergone detailed scrutiny by the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment. This Committee saw the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, including NGOs and experts on issues concerning persons with disabilities, leading to clause-wise recommendations. Many amendments proposed in the Bill were circulated on the basis of the Standing Committee recommendations and incorporated in the Bill as passed by the Rajya Sabha. For example, the Bill now defines discrimination, and clarifies the guardianship provision — balancing the rights of persons with disabilities with the circumstances when they are unable to take their own decisions.

The Bill is different from the Act in many ways, including an expansion in the number of specified disabilities covered under the Bill, from 7 to 19. Definition has been given to what constitutes ‘discrimination’, and provision of guardianship and special courts for persons with disabilities. Rights such as right to equality, personal liberty and to live in a community have been conferred on all persons with disabilities. Entitlements have been provided for persons with a benchmark disability of at least 40 per cent and include reservations in education and employment and preference in government schemes. Both public and private establishments have been included under the ambit of the Bill, with a fine for any violation of its provisions.

For a person with disability who is not capable of taking care of himself, or of taking legally binding decisions, a district court may order guardianship. Following the amendment of this provision, the court will decide the further course of action regarding support to the person with disability where limited guardianship (decisions taken by the guardian in consultation of the person in question) has been granted repeatedly. Further, any persons with disability aggrieved by the decision of the appointment of a legal guardian may appeal against it to an appellate authority.

An outstanding issue with the Bill which remains is regarding the financial allocation for the implementation of the Bill. For the implementation of certain provisions of the Bill, there are obligations imposed on states and municipalities. For example, creating a state fund for the disabled, providing barrier-free access to all parts of a hospital/health care centre and providing public documents in an accessible format for them. These would, understandably, have financial repercussions on the state and local governments. Without clarity on the funding pattern and sources, it could potentially impact the Bill’s implementation. Another issue that needs consideration is the incompatibility of the Bill in its current form with some of the existing legislations.

For example, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 allows for the termination of pregnancy of any woman between 12 to 20 weeks of pregnancy provided that two registered medical practitioners are of such opinion.

It could be argued that the safeguards against termination of pregnancy existing in the MTP Act, 1971 (requirement of opinion of two medical practitioners) are being lowered by the Bill (requirement of one medical practitioner only). These issues must be considered in the deliberations in Lok Sabha before enactment.