New Delhi: Bishnu Chaudhary and his wife Vijaya Devi, both stricken by polio, have been waiting for work for the past two years. But on 2 October, Chaudhary and others like him picked up the shovel to show that they too are able.
“We wanted to show that we can also work, just like everyone else can,” said Chaudhary, who hails from Dausa district in Rajasthan.
Chaudhary and others like him from nine states have formed a group, called Viklang Manch, to demand that disabled people be treated equally for eligibility under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the country’s flagship welfare programme which promises 100 days of employment a year to poor rural households.
While the Act is neutral on giving work to people with disabilities, certain aspects, if amended, can aid states in identifying what jobs can be sanctioned for the disabled, according to the group.
“There is nothing certain written in the rules as to what kind of disabled person is eligible for what kind of work,” said Sonu Golkar from Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, the national coordinator for the group. “That should really be the first step.”
Works such as arranging for drinking water, computer training and teaching can be undertaken by disabled people, he said.
On 2 October, when the disabled workers dug a water tank for Atun panchayat in Rajasthan, they earned Rs75 each for the day’s labour, more than the Rs66 per head able-bodied workers doing the same job earned.
The Union government in 2008 circulated an order listing jobs that can be sanctioned for disabled people, but only one state, Madhya Pradesh, has notified it.
The notification says that the Act does not differentiate differently abled people from the rest and specifically mentions what sort of work can be assigned to whom.
“But the Centre can only recommend in such a case and not force the states, as finally, the states are the implementing agency,” said Mihir Shah, member, Planning Commission, India’s apex planning body.
The informal group has framed its own set of suggested amendments, which they claim will help them get employment. It submitted this proposal to C.P. Joshi, minister for rural development, during the first social audit of NREGA in Bhilwara.
Joshi had said at a public function that disabled people should be treated as one separate family unit when job cards are issued, which was one of the demands.
Among other demands, the Viklang Manch has suggested that 3% of the expenditure in each district be reserved for the disabled, new kinds of work be included in the schedule of works, and jobs specific for particular disabilities be included.
“An official from the social justice and empowerment department should be made a part of the implementation committee of NREGA,” said Navin Narayan, programme officer, Action Aid International, a non-profit body operating in around 40 countries.
“Although the Act is friendly in terms of moving decisively (on including the disabled), very little has happened,” said Pramathesh Ambasta, national coordinator, civil society consortium on NREGA, a loosely federated collective of civil society organizations to support NREGA.
“Except Madhya Pradesh, which has clearly categorized the works. This needs to be up-scaled.”
“States need to be convinced that reforms are required and should see the merit in this, as there is lack of an enabling framework for such people,” Ambasta added.
For disabled people, access to work under NREGA is not the same story everywhere.
According to the data released by the rural development ministry, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh are the best performers in this regard, providing jobs to 30,903 and 14,122 disabled people, respectively, between April and September.
Bihar provided jobs to a mere 41 disabled people in this period.
“We face discrimination at every step and this issue is considered too small,” said Golkar. “But till a person doesn’t have work, he doesn’t have dignity.”