Saturday, 12 April 2014

Looking down the Barrel

In just about ten days, it will be my turn to cast my ballot in the current elections in India. I have very ambivalent feelings on whether I should even bother. I know it is considered the duty of every right-minded citizen of a country to do his civic duty come elecion day, and go exercise his/her franchise. Here are the reasons for my ambivalence.

I don't really relish the idea  of the mantle of PM passing to any of the realistic candidates for that position, least of al the one considered the front runner. This is a man who is almost universally believed to have deliberately turned the other way and ordered the police forces under his command as CM of his state to ignore and do nothing to stop communalist violence that resulted in death of a large number of Muslims. His latest rants against the ruling Congress party give an indication of how sensitive his administration will be to the need for universal design or barrier-free environments. According to a report in the New Indian Express (April 10th), he has referred to a former wheel-chair bound CM as an `apahij' (meaning cripple) going on to say `he is in a wheelchair..', thereby indicating that such a politician could not be effective. That same report goes on to his comparing the Congress Party leadership to a Bollywood movie wherein the family introduces a beautiful daughter at the time of finalising a marriage proposal and later switches sisters by introducing the one with a disability for the marriage ceremony. This font-runner further goes on to say The country does not want a deaf and handicapped government controlled at the centre. How low can people's insensitivity dip? And this is the man tipped to be our future PM!

The Congress candidate for PM has shown time and again that he is very adept at putting his entire foot in his mouth with his questionable oratory `skills'. The last person in this essentially three-horse race won a local election in Delhi, much to the pleased surprise of many, only to disappoint the hopeful potential future supporters of his party by acting overly hastily and consequently stepping down from his fledgeling career as Delhi CM. His party (called AAP, born just a few months ago) on the other hand has put up a manifesto which explicitly puts down its commitment to the betterment of the rights and lives of our women, as well as to the empowerment of PWD. Unfortunately, AAP is too young a party to hope to make any significant headway on its own this time around.

Finally, my experience of trying to vote last time around, and all the lack of accessibility at the polling booths, does not give me much courage to hope for any improvement in the infra-structural facilities, so my POA is to ask my wife to check out the scene, and then go myself to vote, only if she reports favourably on the state of (in)accessibility of the booth. On the positive side, I will start working soon after the elections, to get the local powers that be to clean up their act. (A disability activist friend of mine, Dr. Satendra Singh, has ben tirelessly hounding the Chief Election Commisioner in Delhi to so clean up their act, and still only reports partial success, with things staying much the same in many places!) I shall strive with like-minded friends, to start this programme right away and hope to have things in place in time for the next elections!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

A wonderland called Arushi

A little more than a year ago, I acquired an e-friend by virtue of the pieces I had been writing on matters concerning disability. Through her, I came to know of an organisation called Arushi which has been doing yeoman service for decades, facilitating children with various manners of impairment, rendering monuments of national importance accessible for people with disabilities, etc. And this woman e-friend,  a quite accomplished writer, used to wax eloquent on the theme of Arushi in particular, and Bhopal, in general. So it is that I have wanted to visit Bhopal and Arushi for a while now.

And as luck would have it, I found myself being invited to speak at a conference being organised by IISER Bhopal in mid-March. My wife, with interests in aechaeology, was waxing eloquent about Sanchi which she had visited many moons ago as a student. And my daughter also being around and relatively free, we trooped off en famille to Bhopal - after having made sure to ask my e-friend Shefali for some contacts at Arushi; and she had promptly obliged by giving me the phone numbers of Rohit and Anil.

This was a three-day conference at IISER, fixed for Friday-Sunday a few weeks ago. Although I had already told my host at IISER that I would be bunking a day of the conference so as to be able to visit Sanchi and Arushi, it turned out that the scheduling of the Conference was such that I could only take Sunday off. So I called Rohit, and asked him if I could visit Aruushi on Sunday afternoon; and he cheerfully said `any time is fine; only you won't see the children, because it is Sunday'. I explained to him that I really had no other time I could come (I was flying out of Bhopal early on Monday morning).

We left for Sanchi early on Sunday morning, and one of the first things I noticed on entering there on my wheelchair was the strip of tactile tiles throughout the area and I proudly told my family this could only be the handiwork of Arushi - which it was, indeed! After a very calming few hours at Sanchi, we returned to Bhopal for lunch before heading for Arushi. I had told Rohit I'd be there by 2,30 and we were unfortunately some 10 or 15 minutes late. When I called Anil to apologise (as I couldn't get throughto Rohit's phone), he said they were waiting for me.  The wonderful experience I had for the next few hours was possible only because of the obviously great regard and affection that my hosts had for Shefali, a long-time volunteer at Arushi. Tomorrow happens to be her birthday, and I wish to put together assorted photographs that my daughter clicked on my phone camera, and say: Thanks, and I hope this aid to nostalgia would start off a wonderful birthday, Shefali.

The board says it all

Lush greenery inside the premises

Lots of welcoming ramps
Bright happy colours

Octopus's garden?

Plenty of natural light and air

Anil making Rohit autograph a memento for me

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Deja vu?

The memory of my last attempt (see the post Just another way we are sidelined in this blog) to be a civic-minded person and cast my vote is still too fresh in my memory for me to want to subject myself to an encore. So I had sort of decided that I would ignore the civic-minded half of my mind, and just refuse to participate in the electoral exercise that all India is going to be subjected to this year. But then, one of my group of disbility activists sent me an email yesterday saying she had received an email from the State Commissioner of the Differently Abled asking her to participate in a meeting with representatives of associations for Differently Abled People that was being convened to solicit opinions with a view to making the forthcoming elections an inclusive one; and she said she had replied saying we would all come and so I obediently put my earlier decisions re boycotting these elections on hold, and went to the venue of this meeting.

Our first exposure to this `Ground Floor Auditorium' was one with five steps at the entrance. Just as I was preparing to get hot under the collar, an obviously senior bureaucrat came and told us that we should go around to the side of the building which was equipped with ramps and was accessible. On going around the corner towards the side entrance, this is what we saw:


Rubble and water and what not!

When we all finally managed to get in, everything was a bit chaotic - with an attempt being made by the three dignitaries on the dais that they were indeed making an effort to make this polling exercise a more inclusive one. Finally, one seemed to be receiving mixed signals and I still haven't decided what I will do come election day!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Ode to Kadambari

I had an unbelievable experience today. You see, there is this exercise I had been involved in with some freiends of mine (where we used this Groupspace called Roads4All to send one another emails) with the avowed common desire/goal of rescuing our public spaces from the tyranny of the automobile and returning it to the people by creating wider and barrier-free pavements which would be accessible  even to people with disabilities. I had had three or four earlier experiences of attempting such `access audits' for a few of of the 300 roads that the Chennai Corporation has promised to render so accessible. Some of those experiences (more than 3 months ago) - with such roads as Conran Smith Road, the roads on which SIET and Loyola Colleges are located, as also a triangle in Egmore involving the Police Commissioner's Office Road, Pantheon Road and another road whose name eludes my sieve-like memory - were thoroughly forgettable and disappointing experiences.

In the last three months, many of us were busy with trying to ensure that a certain fractious Bill on the `Rights of PWD' was not tabled and passed in unseemly haste in the dying moments of the reign of the current ruling party of the Central Govt. of India. Recently, I learnt a horribly ironic fact: a wonderful, vivacious young woman called Kadambari, who worked with Transparent Chennai, one of the organisations which roped our group (called DRA) into the Roads4All exercise, had lost her life a few weeks ago in an automobile accident in Bangalore!

Other organisations involved in this exercise are the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Chennai City Connect Foundaion (CCCF). Not long after I heard the horrific news about Kadambari, we received an email from one of our ITDP friends to ask if we would be willing to assist in an audit of the busy and up-market 2nd Main Road in Besant Nagar. As it was the least that one could do for the fragrant memory that was Kadambari, four of us (3 from DRA and 1 from ITDP), met at more or less the southern end of 2nd Main Road (near the Spencer's there). And we began our leisurely stroll down the eastern side of the road - even ITDP could not talk the residents/commercial establishments into letting them perform the sidewalk-widening experiment on the western side of the road - pausing every few feet to point out possible improvements or potential hazards, and, of course, clicking away with our iPads and mobile phones to document various points. The point of this story is that the following unbelievable thing happened: I managed to travel a distance of close to a kilometre on my wheelchair; just conceive the existence of such a stretch of pavement in India! 

Amba put her iPad to good use and emailed me the following link within an hour of returning home from our evening walk:

ITDP, CCCF, Transparent Chennai - and Chennai Corporation - have done an awesome job, at least of this stretch. Of course, there is still some room for improvement, but even this is tremendously creditable. You don't know how buoyed I have been feeling ever since our evening `walk' yesterday. Can you imagine me going out and buying a bunch of luscious greens from a vendor on our city streets? Thanks, Kadambari for your parting gift; and may this experience extend to many more places and make a reality of the  concept of making our public spaces our's!.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Eye for an Eye

The last couple of days must be the nadir of inhumanity that some Indians have subjected some others to. What makes it particularly hideous is the way that ...

Let me start again, and start at the very beginning as a popular Julie Andrews song goes. Once there was a man called Gandhi who led the Indians to freedom by employing the till then unheard of notion of non-violent struggle. At that bloody time that witnesed Britain's partition of what was then India into India, West and East Pakistan, Gandhi said many eye-opening things. There is a scene in the movie `Gandhi' where one Hindu who had just lost his wife and child was ready to unsheathe his knife, go into the streets, looking for a possible Muslim, Gandhi told him to instead adopt a child, preferably Muslim, who had lost his parents due to the madness that was engulfing the people. He said if you demand on taking an eye for an eye, the whole world will soon be blind. I have no reason to believe this was not founded on fact! All India followed his lead in the Quit India movement against the British, and lovingly called him `Mahatma' - literally, great soul.

Now I want you to let the camera move about 65 years ahead to the Nadir I spoke of. There is another Gandhi, called Rahul who is trying to be the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Congress, only by virtue of his genealogy. For the uninformed, this Rahul is no relative of the Mahatma. He happens to be the great-grandson of Nehru, our first Prime Minister, and Nehru's daughter Indira was PM a little later, and she was married for a brief while to a man with the last name Gandhi. After Indira, her son Rajiv became PM. And Rajiv's son is Rahul; and now, for his role in this eye for an eye/Gandhi twist to the tale.

Rahul Gandhi has, for the first time, stated his readiness to lead the Congress party's essay in the forthcoming elections after his party has been putting up a miserable performance in their current - and conceivably last - term as the ruling party. They have made so many promises, and kept precious few of them. So he gets this brainwave to table and pass a number of these bills hurriedly in the last days of their tenure.

Now for a different tack: India pased the (Persons with Disability) PWD Act in 1995 with the good motive of respecting the rights of PWD to equality in educatiorn, accessibility to public buildings, and equality in the eyes of the Law. Later, the UN drafted a Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. Shortly thereafter India unconditionally ratified the UNCRPD. So far so good.

Many years go by, the 1995 Act is seen to be toothless in enforcing its suggestions, and ratification of the UN CRPD seems to be a meaningless lip-service, and after making sporadic noises on redrafting a `functional' Bill, and one sees drafts in 2011 and 2012, each looking progressively worse than its precessor. all of a sudden, an unholy alliance is made in December 2013 between a Mr. Javed Abidi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi. Now this Javed is one who has once done a non-trivial amount of good for the PWD sector; but he tends to be autocratic and he likes to convey the impression to all and sundry that he is `the leader' of this sector. He gets the bright idea of doing a hatchet job of the prior drafts of the RPD Bill, claims to `include' some more kinds of disabilities in the ambit of this RPD Bill 2014, which, according to him, will be a game-changer and make the whole world much better for the roughly 70 million people with disabilities in India. The final master-stroke is for him to convinece Rahul that all Indian PWD want and need this Bill to be passed, to include *his* RPD Bill in the list of Bills to be tabled and passed, and hence be seen as the champion of the unfortunate by passing this Bill.

Fortunately there are several disability activists who have spotted the numerous flaws and dreadful consequences that would accrue from passing this Bill, and thave been raising objections to this diabolical plan. After Rahul failed to pass this and several other Bills, they came up with the idea of trying to pass these Bills via the route of Ordinances sneaked in with the help of a President who had not too long ago been a minister during the Congress' rule. When news of this leaks out, several visibility impaired people join in a protest march in places like the Congress Party's Office and the residence of Rahul Gandhi. The next thing one hears is that the police have started lathi-charging the blind protesters. They then enclose all these people in a pen created by police barriers on three sides and a wall on the fourth side; and these people are not allowed to drink any water, or to use any restroom facilities; and the whole thing is done crudely and harshly. The group that had gathered outside Rahul's house included, in its number, a persom who had already lost use of one eye; this lad had won medals in archery at the Abilympics, and he had even been decorated with an `Arjuna Award -  by the (current) President of India. He was also brutally manhandled, and received lacerations in the one good eye, and was moved to the operating table. There have been conflicting reports on the state of his good eye.

And the really mind-blowing fact is that the Press and TV Media have hardly thought it fit to say anything about this grotesque cruelty being dealt out to people voicing their concerns in a non-violent way. Makes one wonder whether this media is part of the Fourth estate or Fifth column. Tomorrow seems to be the last stand of this cabinet trying to meet to pass the ordinnces on a Sunday. Talk of devotion to duty! Thus has this Gandhi interpreted the `eye for an eye' idiom that was used so compassionately by the Mahatma.

But just as the non-violent followers of Mahatma Gandhi received blows from an inhuman British army nevertheless won their war because of the supremacy of good over evil, so will the opponents with disabilities of Rahul Gandhi overcome the self-serving people who are trying to pass this Bill purely for the gratification of their inflated egos.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Pepper spray and all that

That which I had been dreading and writing about in the last few posts - the possible passage of the regressive RPWD Bill 2014 - was not allowed to take place because of the utter chaos that exists in our parliament. All but four days of the past week (the last one for this possibly last session in the tenure of the current ruling party) were devoted to the contentious Telengana bill. Typically, the house would be convened, and immediately a motley crew of parliamentarians would run into `the well', flash slogans and generally create such a din that you could not hear anything the speaker was trying to say, until, after about 3 minutes of this theatre of the absurd, the speaker would adjourn the house for anything between a half an hour and half a day. In the last few minutes of the sitting on Thursday, the Telengana Bill was passed: this is a contentious separationist bill, which faces strong views for and against; and a state gets split into pieces in a far from unanimous fashion by our great democracy. And what had been aired was that five more bills - each important in its own right - were going to be passsed on the final day of the session. To my unadulterated glee and those in my camp (that of the Pandavas according to the analogy drawn in my last post), the RPWD Bill was referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further study while two of those five bills were passed on friday. So we still have a chance to have our legal minds draft a really inclusive version of the bill in the spirit of the UNCRPD - not because of any good sense, but because of the completely atrocious behaviour of our parliamentarians: one enthusuast even used a `pepper spray in the house' resulting in several people rushing out of the house with bleeding noses and sundry ill-effects'.

I saw the TV news channels closely on friday evening, when NDTV again ran one of its shows with several invited panelists, including the pepper spray merchant, and people were bemoaning the utter depths to which decorum in the house had descended. To me it seems the solution is simple: have some five or ten bouncers (of the kind used in bars and rock concerts, and when somebody repeats an offense after having been once warned, the speaker should just direct the bouncers to evict the offending perfson for the rest of the day, with anyone who ha been so evicted more than once should lose his/her seat in the house. Surely this kind of behaviour would not be permitted in a court of law! (When that happens, it is time retire to a hermit's life in the mountains/forests.)

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The loaded dice

The analogy between efforts of the factions against and for passage of the RPWD Bill 2014 on the one hand, and Yudhishtira and Sakuni playing dice on the other, is not entirely out of place.

One side is trying to preserve at least what they have, and the other is trying to deprive the others of what they already have.

One side has almost been denied any access to publicising their cause; while the press constantly strives to convey the impression that only the second faction exists.

In a show of fair and equal debate, NDTV has a show with six people on show, more or less equally divided numerically between the two groups, but the loaded die has been cast: the compere opens the discussion by inviting the opinion of the leader of the pro-bill faction  and he is given free rein to air his views, while you can see some representatives of the other group straining at the leash, wanting to contest statements being made by the `leader'. When he is through, the compere solicits the opinion of a speaker of the other camp, and just as this lady lawyer is going through her list of reasons for opposing the bill, the leader who has already been allowed to say his piece uninterrupted butts in with his objections contrary to accepted protocol in a debate. One of the anti-bill panelists is never invited to say anything, and is heard only when he has to shout out his opinion in one of the free-for-all shouting matches that later ensues; and the last panelist to be invited to speak is a mother of a child suffering one form of disability that the latest draft of the Bill has included in its definition of a `Person with Disablity' - the implication being that not passing this bill will break this mother's heart. While one wouldn't want to break one heart (by denying her son the virtual and exaggerated benefits of this inclusion), what about the large number of people diagnosed with some form of mental illness being disallowed the right to make legally binding decisions on their own behalf?

The newspapers have been equally biased in their coverage of this bill: they only cite `the leader' as he states his side via a series of half-truths and disinformation.

One only hears what `the leader' has to say, ad nauseum. He says this bill will be a game-changer and that `only the blind groups are opposed to the bill'. Will a hearing impaired person not oppose the fact that `sign language' is never explicitly recognised in the bill as a language? 

Little or no press coverage is given to the fact that the law university NALSAR has come out openly to denounce this bill as a seriously flawed bill. Lawrence Liang of the Law School in Bangalore and Amba Salelkar are two other lawyers who have been lucky enough to find some paper to publish their similar denunciations. I am yet to see a single legal opinion favouring this bill. Is there a lawyer in the other camp? I wonder!

I am sorry to have kept harping on this bill for many consecutive posts; the reason for today's post is that there is a real likelihood of this bill being part of a bundle of 5 bills that the ruling partry has been threatening to pass today, and I am hurriedly posting this in the hope that some legislator might amuse himself by looking at fb during the frequent adjournments of the Rajya Sabha, and see this! Clutching at straws? No choice really.

Oh! a final point in common: good versus bad!