The National Advisory Council's suggestions for strengthening the draft law on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (PWD) is a potentially far-reaching intervention. The step is in sync with the recent notification of a separate Department for Disabilities in the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which was announced in the President's 2012 address to Parliament. Ever since India ratified the United Nations Convention on the rights of PWDs in 2007, the formulation of a comprehensive law became imperative and these two developments suggest things are finally moving ahead. Currently, there are four separate pieces of legislation pertaining to India's disabled population. The earliest, the 1987 Mental Health Act, predates the discourse on affirmative action for the disabled in India and, to that extent, the status of mental illness as a disability remains ambiguous. Then, there is a separate law that deals with the creation of qualified and trained personnel for the provision of rehabilitation and education services for this segment of the population. The third, the PWD Act of 1995, is underpinned by an emphasis on anti-discrimination and guarantees of equal opportunities. Although the latter was envisaged as a comprehensive law, it did not address fully the conditions of persons with other equally severe disabling conditions. Hence the 1999 Act for people with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities.
It is hardly surprising that these four laws in themselves have not mitigated the sense of apathy and bureaucratic red tape that hamper the creation of an enabling environment. The mechanisms and procedures involved are riddled with duplication and inconsistencies, as evidenced by the evolving case law over questions of jurisdiction and interpretation of different laws. More than a billion people around the world experience one or another form of disability, according to the World Health Organisation and World Bank 2011 report. On other estimates, about 10 per cent of the population in developing countries is disabled. By any reckoning, India's numbers would be much larger than what governments are prepared to acknowledge, given the detrimental influences of poverty, illiteracy and poor health on disability. It follows that stepping up investments in health and education is one of the important ways of preventing disabilities and mitigating their impact over the long term. Requiring service providers to furnish a declaration of conformity with the relevant laws is the other means to ensure accountability and effective enforcement. An umbrella legislation will go a long way in altering the present state of affairs.