Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Can bad law be good: Faizan Mustafa

17 Feb 2014

The vision is to have a society where all categories  of  disabled  persons  are valued and respected as equal citizens and partners in the development and progress of  society and they are no longer looked upon either as burdens or  liabilities  or  targets  for  pity  and charity


Why is NALSAR University of Law, the country’s best law school, opposing the Disability Bill introduced a few days back in the Rajya Sabha?  Can the latest amendments rectify the defects in the Bill? What can be done to help  persons with disability at this stage?  These are some of the questions which call for objective and critical analysis.

The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)  makes the progressive and bold assertion that the disabled have the right to recognition as persons. They have full legal capacity on an equal basis with fellow human beings. Thus the Convention makes a fundamental shift from the  “incompetence model” of the disability law to the “universal capacity model”. The Convention challenges the irrational connection between impairment and incompetence.

The UNCRPD also guaranteed the right of participation and effective consultation to persons with disabilities. The Government of India implemented this obligation in letter and spirit when it launched the most extensive pre-legislative process, by first establishing a government-civil society committee to prepare a working draft with inputs from all relevant stakeholders, translating the draft into 14 languages and obtaining public opinion on it by travelling across the country.  This widely consulted Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill was submitted to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, in June 2011. The ministry worked on this draft and came out with its version in 2012. Both the 2011 and 2012 Bills were placed on the ministry’s official website. In the face of this elaborate process of consultation, when cabinet approval was obtained on the current Bill in December 2013, it was presumed that the cabinet had approved the same drafts on which civil society and persons with disability were consulted. This belief was belied. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2014 has little or no relationship with the Bill of 2011. People and institutions like NALSAR, which had been closely involved with the 2011 consultative process, feel betrayed  and hugely disappointed. A  government, which had started the legal reform process by creating due space for the right to participation of persons with disabilities, just lost its way.

The outrage of the leakage was soon substituted by the pragmatism of  experienced realities. A number of disability rights groups tried to retrieve the situation by stringing together a group of amendments which they contended would salvage the Bill and enable the enactment of a long delayed legislation. Since the amendments were circulated to members of Parliament on 8 February 2014, it is important to consider whether the inadequacies found in the 2014 Bill are fully addressed by the proposed amendments. A large number of persons with disabilities are unable to obtain their just due not so much because of their impairments but because of the prejudicial attitudes of people. It is these prejudicial attitudes which form barriers to their participation. Disability is social not physical. The medical model is an outdated concept. It is for this reason that raising of awareness was included as one of the critical obligations of state parties in the UNCRPD.  To arouse awareness,  the Bill of 2014 needed to unequivocally state that no person with disability shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability. The Bill does not, unlike the UNCRPD, spell out what constitutes such  a discrimination and furthermore, allows the discrimination of persons with disabilities if required for a legitimate purpose, provided that proportionate means are employed. Thus a piece of legislation, intended to afford protection against discrimination, itself permits discrimination and this permission has not been withdrawn or amended by the amendment.

In the manner of discrimination, the Bill allows the deprivation of liberty of persons with disabilities provided  there are additional reasons for doing so. What is prohibited is discrimination “only on the ground of disability.” A person with disability, who is a vagrant or destitute or considered to be dangerous, could be deprived of liberty because the requirement of equality operates only if liberty is deprived on the basis of disability. The multiplicity of standards again come to the fore when the Bill allows abortions on women with severe disability… without their consent. The wide scope of the power can be seen from the fact that the Bill does not define a woman with severe disability. This is in spite of the Supreme Court’s  decision on accepting the right of a mentally challenged woman to sustain  her pregnancy. While the apex court had acknowledged the importance of exercise of choice by the persons with disabilities in matters concerning their life, the Bill proposes to turn the clock back.

The Bill makes the inviolable and non-derogable rights, such as liberty and equality, negotiable; at another remove,  it fails to adopt principles which are required to obtain the full inclusion of all persons with disabilities. The Bill makes the matter of lifting the legal disqualifications which subsist in existing laws against persons with intellectual, psycho-social and development disabilities a matter of enforcement by the appropriate government. If the government fulfils its enforcement duties then persons with disabilities can enjoy the legal capacity on an equal basis with others. If it fails, then persons with disabilities can continue to be denied the right to enter into contracts, manage  their own properties, marry according to their choice or the right to sue a negligent service provider.

These negotiable formulations are all the more problematic in the light of the fact that the enforcement authorities established by the Bill have been primarily accorded mere “persuasive powers.” The rights guaranteed under the Bill are formulated in disputable terms. Courts are generally inaccessible to persons with disabilities and the authorities who are closer to them can provide little relief in most situations. If the commonly used aphorism in relation to rights is employed in this situation, then it can be said there are no rights as there are no remedies.  Such inadequacies of form and substance, which are only illustrative in nature, led NALSAR University of Law, to disassociate itself from the 2014 Bill. However, when the university examined the case of those who were supporting the Bill, we realised that the collapse of the Bill would hit those with disabilities that are not included in the 1995 Act.    Such persons can obtain the benefit of disability certificate, or pension, or travel concessions only if they are considered persons with disabilities. Since the 2014 Bill included them, they were willing to ignore  the glaring inadequacies of the Bill, consoling themselves with the thought that there is no such thing as “perfect law”.

A realistic acknowledgement of legal imperfection is acceptable; however, to accept a bad law considering it to be good, if not perfect, is undesirable. The new Bill will apply to all  forms of disabilities ~  “old and new”. The  “new disabilities”, so-called, in order to obtain inclusion are inadvertently submitting to a discriminatory regime. The only way out is to include by legislative amendment or promulgation of Ordinance all the disabilities which were going to be included in the 2014 Bill and extend to them all the benefits which are presently extended to disabilities included in the 1995 Act. Such an amendment would create a level playing field between all disabilities and enable all groups to uncompromisingly demand their just due.

We want to have a society which is truly inclusive and egalitarian, where every individual including persons with disabilities have equal opportunities. The vision is to have a society where all categories of disabled persons are valued and respected as equal citizens and partners in the development and progress of  society and they are no longer looked upon either as burdens or liabilities or targets for pity and charity.

The writer is Vice-Chancellor of the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad

Source: The Statesman

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