The winter session of Parliament, which began on 16 November and ended on 16 December in 2016, failed to achieve much in terms of usual business, except perhaps the passage of the historic Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016.
The Bill has revived many debates, including the one on the need to create inclusive infrastructure to facilitate greater independence among the differently-abled. One of the key players in this debate is the corporate sector which has engaged with the issue in a limited way so far—from token reservations for internal employment to working with differently-abled persons under the ambit of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The Bill is expected to increase corporate support for and engagement with the differently-abled. As Sugandhi Baliga, lead of the health portfolio at Tata Trusts, says, “This is an opportune time for more people to come forward and support creation of an inclusive environment."
With the new law coming in and with CSR rules already in place, firms will have more ways to deploy funds in favour of helping people with disabilities, she adds.
CSR rules, which fall under the purview of Section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, require firms with a net worth of Rs500 crore or revenue of Rs1,000 crore or a net profit of Rs5 crore to spend 2% of their average profit of the previous three years on social development activities under Schedule VII.
Tata Trusts runs over 450 projects in different social sectors like health, education, etc., and 30 of these are focused on creating inclusive environments, job opportunities, and living spaces for people with disabilities. These account for around 6-7% of the total budget, which comprises philanthropic donations and a large part of CSR funds from Tata group of companies.
While CSR rules do not pose any roadblock to working for the disabled, they do not list such work as a separate category. Firms that work with differently-abled people classify such activity as part of promoting education, vocational training or preventive healthcare.
So far, projects or engagement with disabled persons by firms was restricted in terms of the scale of operations, suggest experts. “With the coming of this Bill, more firms are encouraged to look at the challenges and address them in a more holistic manner," says Adarsh Kataruka, director, Soul Ace, a CSR consulting firm.
He says that the Bill encourages mainstreaming of a greater number of differently-abled people. Earlier the government of India recognized only seven categories of disability, the Bill has increased that to 21.
Kataruka adds that the Bill will help firms go beyond CSR and devote more strategic thought to CSR for the differently-abled.
However, Sminu Jindal, managing director of steel maker Jindal SAW Ltd and a champion of the rights of the disabled, believes disability is a development issue, one that goes beyond what firms can do under philanthropy or CSR. “Disability is a fact or current state of affairs for a person dealing with it; accessibility in infrastructure is the solution, thereby making it (accessibility) a development issue," she says.
Founder of the Svayam Foundation, Jindal has been working on the issue for the past 16 years. While Jindal SAW put Rs75 lakh of its CSR funds last fiscal into the foundation that works exclusively on improving accessibility and infrastructure for differently-abled persons, the foundation also receives other financial support (in the form of individual donations and grants from aid agencies) to run its programs.
For others already working on the issue, like the Nasscom Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the information technology trade association, skilling is the most important aspect of helping people with disability.
The foundation has been working for and with differently-abled persons for the past six years by providing digital literacy and skill development. “The main focus of the foundation’s work is to help remove barriers to people with disability and we do so by helping them gain access and employability," says Shrikant Sinha, CEO of Nasscom Foundation. He adds that jobs give the differently-abled independence. The foundation also helps other agencies make workspaces more accessible.
Firms across sectors are already working for differently-abled people, but Sinha says the IT sector is more advanced in this aspect. He adds that roughly 15% of all social development or CSR funds from the IT sector are deployed on disability-related programmes.
According to Dipesh Sutariya, founder of EnAble, a not-for-profit working with differently-abled persons since 1999, from the CSR point of view, monitoring, impact assessment and tracking of skilling projects is simpler and that is why firms prefer them. He says under CSR or other forms of corporate engagement, firms should look to go beyond training. “We strongly encourage interested firms to look beyond schemes and programmes that already receive funding from government agencies," he says.
For instance, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana launched in 2015 provides funds to organizations training differently-abled persons. Prior to this, there have been other versions of the same scheme under different names.
Following the implementation of CSR rules from 2014, EnAble was approached by 10 firms of which it works with eight including Mphasis, JP Morgan and Accenture that have provided close to Rs3 crore for different projects.
One such CSR-funded initiative by EnAble is a mobile connect (Mobile Vaani) project in Karnataka. A differently-abled person can give a missed call to a specific number, where EnAble India has stored 80 different scripts on job awareness opportunities, accessibility solutions and other narratives for challenges faced by differently-abled persons, which are then played back to the person.
Among the handful of firms that are thinking out of the box on disability is Mphasis Ltd, which has been doing such work for the past 15 years. Mphasis CSR is focussed on education, livelihood training and inclusion.
According Meenu Bhambhani, who heads CSR activities at the firm, Mphasis has looked to include differently-abled persons in each vertical. Its CSR budget for last fiscal was around Rs13 crore, of which 46% was spent on disability inclusion programmes, and deployed via 16 not-for-profit partners. Three of these partners are exclusively focused on working with persons with disabilities.
Citing the ongoing support programme Namma Halli, in partnership with local governments and also involving Mphasis’s own employee volunteers in 10 districts of north Karnataka, Bhambhani says owing to its sensitization, advocacy and building of physical infrastructure, the company has helped increase enrolment of children with disabilities in government schools from 1% to 21% over a period of 7 years.
Another ongoing CSR project that Mphasis is particularly proud of is KickStart Cabs in Bengaluru, a taxi service for people with reduced mobility. For Bhambhani, while selecting partners is key, the firm is always on the lookout for “programmes or interventions that are innovative and disruptive".