There are between 26 million to 100 million persons with disabilities (PwDs) in India, depending upon who is making the estimate. But even 26 million is not a small number. Still, they remain largely unseen because inaccessible infrastructure confines them to their homes or institutions, leading to social isolation and poverty.

Two decades after the enactment of a landmark legislation promoting the rights of PwDs to full participation in Indian society (Disability Act 1995), only limited progress has been made in some areas. Policy and other commitments of the government in a number of areas remain largely unfulfilled.

That outsider feeling To some extent this was inevitable, given the existing capacity of the institutions to deliver, inadequate accountability mechanisms and the entrenched societal attitudes of general indifference to needs of PwDs. The relative neglect of persons with disabilities also comes from lack of awareness of providers, communities and PwDs themselves of their rights. More importantly, PwDs remain outside the policy and implementation framework, at best clients rather than active participants in development.

Even though the majority of PwDs are capable of productive work, most are not gainfully employed, adversely impacting households, the economy and society at large. The lack of a disabled-friendly transport system and slow expansion of opportunities for PwDs comes in the way of disabled people becoming productive members of society.

New disability legislation is awaiting approval of Parliament. This legislation will bring the Indian disability law in line with the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which India is a signatory. This will go a long way in strengthening the legal framework but delivery is unlikely to improve without bolstering the capacity of institutions to deliver.

The nodal agency, the ministry of social justice and empowerment (MSJE), faces inherent challenges, working in this multi-sectoral field. MSJE has limited resources and “convening power” relative to other ministries of the Central and State governments and various entities involved in the implementation of the provisions of the Disability Act.

MSJE’s role is questionable when it comes to special education needs or early identification of disability where the appropriate lead agencies are the ministries of human resource development, and health, together with the ministry of women and child development. This emphasises the importance of having inter-sectoral co-coordinating mechanisms.

A question of attitude The Disabilities Act 1995 mandates Central and State level coordination and executive committees as key institutions for developing policy. The Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CPWD) is the watchdog organisation presenting an annual report to Parliament.

By the Centre’s own assessment, the track record of these institutions is poor. But institutional weakness is not the only reason for so little being achieved over 20 years. In society at large there is an attitudinal problem of general indifference to the needs of PwDs. Politicians who can spearhead a movement for change of attitude have shown very little interest in understanding disability issues.

The case of the Railways is enlightening. The Disabilities Act 1995 mandates that Indian Railways (IR) should make passenger compartments and stations disabled-friendly. To do so, IR does not need the assistance of other ministries or State governments or any other organisation. Yet, even after two decades of promulgation of the Act, IR does not provide equal access to PwDs.

On December 3, 2014, the Prime Minister launched the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan). The campaign begins with the statement that “For PwDs, universal accessibility is critical for enabling them to gain access for equal opportunity and live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life in an inclusive society.” The campaign sets targets for each sector. However, targets set for IR focus on railway station accessibility only. The key issue of accessibility of passenger coaches on an equal basis remains unaddressed.

The Prime Minister could change the lives of millions of disabled persons by making it his mission to enable PwDs become equal members of society. It would change the dynamics of the disability sector since the issues would become part of decision-making. He may also need an advisor on disability to ensure that the needs of PwDs are incorporated in all decision-making.

The writer is a former member of the Central Administrative Tribunal and a wheelchair-user