What can you say when a bureaucrat asks you, “Why do you file so many RTIs?”. To my surprise, I was asked this question during a phone call from the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, now the Ministry of Education. As the convenor of the Javed Abidi Foundation, or the JAF, a youth advocacy group that works alongside people with and without disabilities, it is my job to raise a voice concerning disability rights from a youth perspective.
It has been a bittersweet experience working in this niche area — my ‘adversaries’ treat me like a child, who they think throws temper tantrums even as I write grievance letters to the government, highlighting issues faced by young people with disabilities.
The authorities often assuage my cries for basic human rights for those who deserve it the most by giving me a ‘lollipop’ — a white piece of paper with blots of black and blue, essentially a letter to a higher authority — that keeps floating in the bureaucratic circles, ministries and departments. It’s almost as if they mount me on a Ferris wheel, where I sit and spin between different ministries, seeking answers, waiting for a response, but never to receive anything conclusive.
Often, my answer to the bureaucrat is: “Sir mujhe bas ab jawaab chahiye (Sir, I only want an answer now). That is all I want from this government: some basic accountability.
An unpleasant ride
A recent experience I had, involving two ministries and a letter, will illustrate my unease with the bureaucratic red tape. It’s yet another ‘joyride’ the Narendra Modi government has sent me and 85,877 students with disabilities on, since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Between 24 March and 3 April, the JAF held multiple online consultations with students, experts and academicians with different disabilities. On 25 April, we came up with a list of challenges being faced by such students and submitted it to the office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD), under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s (MoSJE) Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD).
The letter highlighted the issue of inaccessibility of online classes for students with disabilities. Online classes are completely inaccessible for Deaf students as there is no Sign Language being provided by most institutions. Furthermore, students who are hard of hearing are also having difficulties as it is harder to lip read via a video call and there are no captions or transcriptions being provided. Blind students have been receiving assignments in image/picture formats which are not Optical Character Recognition (OCR) friendly, making it impossible for them to complete their work without assistance. People who have prosthetic limbs or certain orthopaedic disabilities are unable to communicate through chat boxes, hampering their ability to ask questions during class
JAF’s request to the government was simple: all educational institutions should make their online classes accessible for students with disabilities by providing them with reasonable accommodations as per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act of 2016.
We received a response on 29 April, according to which, K.V.S Rao, Director, DEPwD, had asked G.C. Hosur, Joint Secretary of the Department of Higher Education, to issue an advisory to all states, Union Territories, and academic institutions to provide equal opportunity to all students with disabilities.
Despite this prompt directive by DEPwD, we did not receive any heads up from the Ministry of Education. So, with the intention of expediting the process, the JAF held another round of consultations to formulate recommendations for the Ministry of Education and had them sent to G.C. Hosur on 5 May 2020.
We sent reminder emails to Hosur on 6, 8 and 18 May. When we did not hear back, we tried reaching Amit Khare, secretary, higher education, besides marking all communication to other relevant bureaucrats on 12 May.
With students becoming restless by the day, JAF volunteers decided it was time to cold call people in the Ministry of Education. After some initial bad luck, Rajnish Kumar, the Director of Digital Education, Department of School & Literacy, came our way. Handing me another government ‘lollipop’, he forwarded our request to Ravi Katyal, someone who is in-charge of issues related to people with disabilities, on 12 May. We followed up with him by sending him emails on 13 and 16 May, but failed to receive a response this time either. We were spun on the sarkari Ferris wheel, while three bureaucrats watched us, and waved with a smile.
JAF then decided to write to the Chairperson of University Grants Commission (UGC), Chairperson of All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Vice Chairperson of the UGC, and personal secretary to the Secretary, Ministry of Education on 18 May, 2020. With no response from anyone, on 21 May, we appealed to the larger disability sector and hosted a twitter storm, using the hashtags #NothingAboutUs and #GAAD, demanding accessible online education on May 21. This coincided with the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). Lastly, a reminder was again sent to Katyal on 27 May, 2020.
Time to get off the Ferris wheel
Exhausted after seeking government help for over a month, the JAF decided to go solo. Through the month of June and July, we emailed 284 universities and colleges. The email addresses were compiled from the UGC website, out of which 44 email addresses were incorrect, hence the email itself was rejected, and 239 universities did not respond. There was only one positive response — from Punjab University. It was sad to observe that institutions that are supposed to educate and work for the welfare of students were apathetic to access related needs of students with disabilities.
In a way, we had been ‘atmanirbhar’ from the very beginning, but were now finally sick from the joyride. We filed a complaint, using our right to write to the Prime Minister’s portal, on 13 July and further filed RTIs to look into the four reminder emails sent to G.C. Hosur on 22 July.
Funnily enough, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) forwarded the complaint back to. K.V.S. Rao, Director of DEPwD, who had issued the initial ‘lollipop’ letter on 29 April. Exactly three months later on 29 July, Rao forwarded our representation/grievance to the Ministry of Education, once again trying to sell us the ticket to the ‘wheel of no return’ that we were quite familiar with by now.
Is this how the government really works? Passing on the buck to whomsoever it can, and not adopting simple recommendations? When will the accessibility guidelines see the light of day? Will it be after the pandemic is over? Is it alright for the authorities to shirk responsibility in this manner? Do they not even have an ounce of accountability or self-respect? And most importantly, how much can you ignore a youth group that advocates for disability rights? Or, is this the case with everyone?
On 24 July, as per a response of the RTI applications filed to look into the four reminder emails sent to G.C. Hosur, we were informed that the Ministry of Education had no information regarding any movement on the issue that had happened within the ministry. This essentially means that nearly four months of our efforts to chase and follow up with government officials led to absolutely nothing.
This brings me back to that bureaucrat who asked me what the government should do with my RTIs — my response remains unchanged: “Sir, mujhe bas ab jawaab chahiye (Sir, I only want answers now)”.
The author is the Convenor of Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF). Views are personal.