September 7, 2009 New Delhi

Equal Opportunities for Disabled People - Dr. Manmohan Singh, PM of India

I am very happy to be here today to inaugurate this very important Conference of State Ministers of Welfare and Ministers of Social Justice. There can be no progress unless and until the pace of progress is also linked with the achievement of empowerment of the marginalized sections and our country moving towards a constitutional imperative of social justice. I therefore thank my colleague, Shri Mukul Wasnik, for having convened this very important Conference to discuss a subject of critical national importance. As I said, it is our constitutional, social and moral duty to give high priority to the needs and concerns of the Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes, Persons with Disabilities and our Senior Citizens. I hope that through your deliberations today, both the Centre and the States will work out effective strategies to ensure greater security, greater dignity, greater equality and more non-discriminatory treatment to the vulnerable sections of our population.

Unfortunately, it cannot be said that we have shown adequate sensitivity and understanding that are required to deal with the special problems of these disadvantaged groups. Progress has been made but this progress falls far below expectations and far below the needs of our country. They are and should be considered as equal partners in our development processes. Development processes must lead to that imperative necessity. We should therefore reflect on how to harness the largely untapped potential of people of disadvantage to become equal productive citizens of our great Republic.

The root of the problem of exclusion from the national mainstream lies in social prejudices and associated discrimination. What can we do to become a more humane and socially progressive society and thereby a more developed society? It appears to me we can begin by changing a mindset that sees people of disadvantage not as a productive national resource that they are but as a marginal section of society at the fringes of our policy establishment. I urge you to carry out a concerted awareness programme that makes creative use of media, educational institutions and civil societies and places the well being of these marginalized section at the centre of the development agenda for our nation.

Our first task is to provide physical security. Reports of atrocities against SCs, STs and senior citizens unfortunately continue to appear all over the country with disturbing regularity. I have in fact written to the Chief Ministers of all the States recently to enforce vigorously the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. I also had benefit of a separate meeting with Chief Ministers on the subject. It is shocking that the conviction rate for cases of atrocities against SC/STs is less than 30% against the average of 42% for all cognizable offences under the IPC. The State Governments therefore need to give more attention to this important issue. Meetings of State and district Vigilance and Monitoring Committees should be held more regularly. Court cases should be pursued diligently and on priority basis.

This year many parts of our country have reported drought like situation. The experience has been that weaker sections tend to be the worst affected by such natural calamities. We therefore need to step up monitoring and implementation of key welfare schemes like NREG programme, "Annapurna" programme, Old Age Pension Scheme which target the weaker sections and it is our duty to ensure that these sections receive their proportionate share of these benefits. This year, we propose to take up a new scheme on a pilot basis, called "Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana" (PMAGY) for integrated development of 1,000 villages, each having more than 50% SC population. This scheme aims at convergent implementation of various development schemes in these villages, with an additionality of Rs. 10 lakh per village to meet such of its basic requirements as cannot be met from the existing schemes. If the pilot scheme is successful we hope to be able to expand it.

I have in the past few months been meeting groups representing persons with disabilities. I found in each one of them a desire and even a determination to live productive lives and also to make their own individual contributions to society. We should give them every possible opportunity to do so. They need equal opportunities as equal citizens with special needs. Our country has signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) that came into force in May 2008. This Convention casts certain obligations on all the signatories towards enforcement of various rights of persons with disabilities. We propose therefore to comprehensively amend the Persons with Disabilities Act, in consultation with the State Governments and all stakeholders, so as to bring it in line with our obligations under the UN Convention.

Accessibility is a major issue for persons with disabilities. I would urge that our educational and healthcare institutions, our government offices, our banks and other places with public dealings ought to be made more user friendly and accessible to the disadvantaged persons. Small steps like building ramps or designating officers to facilitate their work can go a long way in this direction.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology needs to promote development of accessibility software in all Indian languages. Our websites need to be more user-friendly for disabled persons and I am very happy that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment under the leadership of my distinguished colleague Mukul Wasnik has made a beginning in this regard. I congratulate Shri Mukul Wasnik for this initiative. The National Institute of Design should similarly be urged to encourage the design of everyday appliances and instruments that cater to the needs of people with various disabilities. These are the kinds of institutions that should in my opinion take the lead in building social consciousness in support of the legitimate aspirations of people with disabilities.

The Finance Minister, in the budget speech for 2007-08, had announced an Incentive Scheme to promote employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector. This scheme has been in operation since 1st April, 2008. However, it is regrettable that it has unfortunately not made much headway in the last one and half years. This may partly have been due to the economic slowdown of 2008-09. But as our economy is now emerging from its slowdown phase, I would urge the corporate sector to respond handsomely in the implementation of the Scheme. Central and State Governments and the corporate sector need to work hand in hand so that persons with disabilities get employment opportunities in the private sector through this scheme in large numbers. This is an important part of the social obligation of corporate enterprises.

The estimated population of our senior citizens is projected to more than double by 2026 to 17.3 crore. India has a longstanding tradition of respect and service to elders. But with growing urbanization and nuclearisation of the family, we should reflect on the role of the community and the State in looking after the aged and the elderly persons. Our senior citizens must feel secure, valued and honoured.

Our Parliament has enacted a very important legislation - viz. the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act - in December 2007. But individual State Governments have to bring the Act into force, notify rules under it, and establish and activate Maintenance Tribunals. Five States have yet to notify the Act. Even the States which have brought the Act into force have been slow in taking follow up action, which they need to do on high priority.

What I have outlined are only a few of the many tasks that you have on your agenda. Since the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was set up, I think a lot of good work has been done. Mukul Wasnik has brought a new sense of purpose and dynamism to this Ministry. There is much more that can and needs to be done both at the central and state levels. I am sure, under his leadership, this Ministry will rise to the occasion. I am told that more than half the identified beneficiaries under the "Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers", which is an important scheme of the Ministry, are yet to be rehabilitated. We have to undertake this task on a top priority basis. State Governments need to be more pro-active in implementing the scholarships and hostel schemes for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. Issue of disability certificates should be expedited, preferably within a month of the date of application.

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the deliberations of this very important conference will be guided by a sense of compassion, by principles of social justice and by an obligation to care and provide for all our disadvantaged sections. I wish the Conference all success.