Narendra Modi isn’t much liked in the left-lib-dominated circles of the country and this includes disability advocacy groups. Unfortunately, most of such groups are replete with ideologically atrophied individuals who cannot see beyond their personal biases and egos. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that you cannot haunt the annals of left-libism unless you criticize Modi and pretend as if every problem in the country originates from his way of thinking.
Recently during one of his “Man Ki Baat” broadcasts Narendra Modi talked about why people with disabilities shouldn’t be called “viklang” (one having a defect) and rather they should be called “divyang” (one having extraordinary physical or sensory abilities) because persons with disabilities normally develop extra abilities, what they call in medical terms, “compensatory hypertrophy”. The basic idea is, instead of looking down upon persons with disabilities, one should hold them in awe for being able to develop those extra – whether voluntarily or involuntarily – physical and mental abilities.
Whenever Modi says something, it gets twisted into something bizarre, something grotesque and something totally unsavory. For the past 65 years our country has been in economic, social, political and cultural doldrums, forget about making India a disabled-friendly country, and now suddenly, Modi is supposed to undo the damage within a few years, and if he doesn’t, if he wavers or flounders, he is worse than his predecessors. This is the tragedy of our country.
There has been an outcry in the disability circles regarding this new term coined by the PM, “divyang”. They say it’s condescending, diverts people from the real issue and makes things difficult for people with disabilities who have been struggling to become a part of the “normal” society rather than a “divya” society. Being the Prime Minister of a country that aspires to become a first world nation within a decade, Modi and his speech writers should know what effect terminologies can have. In fact, before introducing the word “divyang” he himself said in the broadcast how important it is to be careful of the language we use while talking to and talking about persons with disabilities.
At the surface level there is nothing wrong in the way people are reacting. After all, getting the rest of the society to change the language and then consequently, the attitude, has been a long struggle. Even terms like “people with special needs” are becoming objectionable.
Disability is not about what a person can do that I cannot do physically or mentally. Disability is always about the environment, at least when we are living amidst civilization. It is the environment that makes a person disabled.
Take for example having a ramp in front of a building. If there is no ramp, and if the person, along with his or her wheelchair, has to be carried up by 4-5 people, it doesn’t just become a public spectacle, it is also highly inconvenient and restricting to all the people involved, especially the one on the wheelchair. If there is a ramp, just like everybody else, the person on the wheelchair can go inside the building without fuss. But someone who is disabled, without a ramp, has to depend on 4-5 people carrying him or her in a wheelchair inside the building. A small thing can make a big difference. So yes, it’s the environment that makes a person disabled more than the disability itself.
How does the environment change? By changing the outlook of the society. And how does the outlook change? Changing of the language is a fundamental beginning. Instead of labelling persons with disabilities and categorizing them, we should strive for an environment that is inclusive. I’m not blabbering here about political righteousness; I’m just stating a fact. Just like you need stairs, I need a ramp. Just like you expect the society to take care of your needs, I expect the society to take care of my needs.
Hence, there is nothing wrong in persons with disabilities and their advocates worrying about this new coinage “divyang”, especially that too compartmentalizes persons with disabilities rather than considering them a part of the society with regular needs and rights.
That said, I strongly feel that Modi is good news for persons with disabilities and people cribbing about how nothing much is happening under him for persons with disabilities are either ignorant of the larger picture, or they are running their own political and ideological agendas.
As it happens in every sphere of life, public apathy, corruption at multiple levels, lack of political will and farsightedness, and bureaucratic inefficiency are the big hurdles that keep our country tied down. Things are messy everywhere. People are dying of hunger and malnutrition. Still there is no electricity in millions of villages. Basic amenities are missing. Quality education is available to a selected few. Our society in general lives, compared to the modern, Western world, at a subhuman level. We are, as a country, fine with people dying of disease and hunger because that’s what the poor and the disadvanged do. We are fine with filthy streets and a dilapidated infrastructure. We are fine with the potholes. We are totally fine with open sewages and manholes even if small kids fall into them routinely and die. We are normally insensitive towards human beings whether they are able bodied or disabled due to our class and caste differences. We are uncaring and rude towards a person simply because he or she is poor and doesn’t have connections.
So it’s a pervasive problem. It’s a cultural problem. Our country cannot become accessible exclusively for persons with disabilities. Suddenly facilities cannot become available to persons with disabilities and not to everyone. The change cannot exclusively come for persons with disabilities, especially if we expect to become an integral part of the society.
I will give you another example. At least in Delhi I have seen that roads have overbridges and these overbridges have ramps along with stairs. Obviously these ramps have been built for those who cannot climb stairs. Unfortunately, these ramps are used less by people who need to use wheelchairs, and more by bikers. You can actually see motorbikes and two-wheelers being driven up the ramps and upon the overbridges leisurely, as if this is precisely the reason why these overbridges have ramps.
As a result, grills and gates have been fixed at the bottom of the ramps of many overbridges so that only those who can walk can use the ramps, entirely defeating the purpose of having ramps.
This demonstrates 2 things: one, law and order is a big problem when it comes to maintaining accessible infrastructure. Two, the people who have blocked the ramps so that motorbikes and scooters cannot enter have no idea why the overbridges have the ramps. Has any advocacy group taken up this issue? I have no idea.
Due to the same reason our pavements don’t have ramps for wheelchair users and normally these pavements are kept very high. Since all the bus stops are constructed on the pavements most of the wheelchair users cannot access these bus stops because they cannot climb on the pavements. What is the use of having an accessible transportation system if people who are supposed to make use of such a system cannot reach it? What is the use of having an accessible railway if one cannot reach the railway station? What is the use of creating accessible buildings, hotels and theatres if persons with disabilities cannot travel to those buildings, hotels and theatres?
This is haphazard way of doing things and this is how most of disability rights groups and advocates work in India. They don’t work on the bigger issue, they are constantly dealing with smaller, focused problems and eventually the entire exercise becomes like a dog chasing its own tail. They try to replicate what’s being done in the West, ignoring the ground realities.
So what has all this got to do with Narendra Modi being good news for persons with disabilities?
Before Narendra Modi’s ascent, the concept of a better quality of life was looked down upon. This was a racket actually. Our intellectual class, while itself living in the lap of luxury and opportunity, constantly made the common public feel as if a good quality of life isn’t for everybody. “Ye samjhoaursamjhau, thode main maujmnao, daal roti khao, prabhuke gun gao” – encourage everybody to learn to live with limited resources, the bare minimums, and feel blessed. You were supposed to feel good if you could get enough rice and wheat flour from the ration outlets. Whereas the privileged had access to every luxury life can afford due to connections and money power, for the common folks, even getting a telephone connection meant a 4-year wait.
The intellectual and political class of the country constantly preached to the people that they shouldn’t expect a better life because expecting a better life is a sin. Strive for the bare minimum. Just look at the way the DDA flats are built or for that matter, any government building – they all resemble the dark Soviet era.
Remain contented with political and administrative inefficiency and corruption because these are necessary evils to keep our society “pluralistic”. The untenable ideas of Marxism and socialism were being constantly drilled down people’s intellect. Enterprise was strongly discouraged by creating cultural norms and bureaucratic hurdles.
The propagation of this idea, that people should be happy living with bare minimums in the past 65 years of the Congress-type rule, forced people to feel apologetic of demanding even the basic amenities. Build everything with bare minimums, that was the motto. And when you have this “bare minimum” mentality, how can you think of creating accessible environments that require out-of-the-box thinking and extra resources? Where building and maintaining a staircase is considered a great achievement, how does one get enough mental space to think of a ramp?
Whether you understand it or not, Modi is changing this “bare minimum” attitude. He is encouraging people to have cleaner streets. He is encouraging people to build toilets in schools and at homes. If you have been paying attention, there are various “shramdaan” groups that are organizing cleanliness drives in various cities and towns. Railway stations and bus terminals are being upgraded. The condition of the roads is improving. Bureaucratic and administrative corruption is at all time low and the greatest thing is, corruption is no longer thought of as a “necessary evil”. Great strides are being made in improving the overall quality of life.
What has all this got to do with persons with disabilities you might be thinking. Well, you’re a part of this society, this culture, this civilization, whether you like it or not, whether you accept it or not, or whether you realize it or not. You can have accessible theatres, accessible schools, accessible colleges and accessible buildings, but you need to travel on the road. You need to deal with the common folks who decide to throw the garbage on the road or into the garbage can. You need to bear the brunt of a callous administration that refuses to repair the damaged roads and pavements. A corrupt bureaucrat or politician isn’t suddenly going to grow sympathetic towards your problem.
One of my friends couldn’t get his disability certificate renewed simply because the bureaucrat responsible for issuing the certificate became hostile because my friend had pointed out the bureaucrat’s inefficiency in handling the matter. Fortunately, my friend had access to the Disability Commissioner and an influential lawyer and eventually, after 2 years, he was able to get a new disability certificate. The official deadline is 3 months. This was in the heart of Delhi. You can very well imagine what sort of difficulties a person must go through in other cities, towns and villages to get facilities that are his or her fundamental right, because of administrative inefficiency. This has got nothing to do with disability rights. This is about how our social and administrative machinery moves. You cannot simply isolate the problem and expect it to be solved. It has to be solved in its entirety.
Modi is changing the system that doesn’t work into a system that works. He is changing our mental setup from “chaltau” to delivering the best in the world. Why compete with Pakistan, Bangladesh or China when you should be competing with Germany?
We have the resources, but what we don’t have is the right civilizational attitude and unless this attitude changes, nothing constructive is going to happen for persons with disabilities, whether we like it or not. We will keep on running in rounds creating lots of noise and achieving very little. Lives of persons with disabilities and without disabilities are intertwined. Once we have better infrastructure, it will be easier to have accessible infrastructure. Once we have an efficient bureaucracy, everybody will be benefited, including persons with disabilities. When our roads and pavements are well-maintained, most of them will automatically become accessible. When a sense of civilizational pride is inculcated among our people, we will automatically care for each other.
You may think that Narendra Modi is unrefined or doesn’t use the right words or ignores certain aspects of disability or has the mentality of a patriarch or he is a chauvinist, or whatever. But his heart is at the right place, and this is what matters. He is unattached. He is not hoarding money. He doesn’t hold grudges. He is unapologetic of his culture, religion and traditions. He minds his own business. He is superhumanly hard-working. He is focused. He is modern in his own ways. He inspires the youth and the old equally. The lazy, the corrupt and the inefficient hate him. With these qualities, even if here and there he makes mistakes, he will quickly correct them. People like him are not obsessed with their own way of doing things, they are more obsessed with doing things the right way. He is flamboyant, yes, but I will have a flamboyant Prime Minister with all the qualities mentioned above any given day compared to the lineage of corrupt, directionless and immoral prime ministers our country has had the misfortune of having.
Because of the qualities I have mentioned above, even if he doesn’t raise a finger towards the betterment of persons with disabilities, he is a better bet for the persons with disabilities compared with the sort of PM we have had before him.