The Bill now placed before Parliament is the best chance yet to enact a ground-breaking law for an estimated 70 million people with impairments — an overwhelming majority of whom, and their care-givers, live in conditions of abject poverty and deprivation. The definition of disability in the Bill is a big departure: it means all long-term physical, mental, intellectual and sensory impairments which, in interaction with barriers in the environment, hinder persons’ effective participation in society on an equal basis. As many as 19 impairments are sought to be accorded legal protection, as opposed to seven under the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act. Correspondingly, the proportion of reservations is proposed to be increased to 5 per cent from the existing 3 per cent. The provision to ensure that the disabled enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with every other person is a strong protection, especially for people with mental retardation. And finally, the incorporation of penal provisions to ensure accountability for law enforcement — a lacuna in the current law — could potentially bridge the gap between professed intentions and practice.

The issue of disabilities has seldom in the past been regarded as politically divisive and the Bill stands a fair chance of mustering the support of parties across the political spectrum. Moreover, the constituents in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government were instrumental in the incorporation of the question on disability in the 2001 decennial population census. This was a step that perhaps has permanently reversed the earlier exclusion of this segment from a crucial national exercise in post-Independence India. Similarly, the political parties of the Left had always supported the passage of important social legislation. Members of both Houses should demonstrate a strong sense of purpose, urgency and sensitivity to make a new law a reality during the current term of Parliament, overcoming the continuing impasse on various other counts. While the concerns expressed by well-meaning non-governmental organisations may be valid in principle, they should weigh the huge practical gains to be made from seeing through this Bill, rather than wait for eternity for the perfect piece of legislation. Parliament could consider incorporating a provision in the new law, mandating that revenues from the levy on corporate social responsibility be channelled to promote employment for the disabled. The disabled are said to constitute the single largest minority in society, as per the World Health Organization and the World Bank report of 2011. Legal protections would go a long way to promote their full participation in society as equal members.

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