The case of a woman passenger with cerebral palsy rudely deplaned by SpiceJet is a terrible reminder of the distance India still needs to travel in recognising and respecting the human rights of disabled people. Even a decade ago, it would have been rare to see a passenger on a wheelchair or with a white cane at an Indian airport. The increasing mobility of the general population in recent years has opened new doors for the elderly and the disabled as well. But last Sunday's incident in Kolkata is a cautionary tale about the arbitrariness with which those doors can be slammed shut. The deplaning of Jeeja Ghosh, a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, is a repeat of a widely-publicised 2007 case when the now defunct Sahara Airlines refused to fly a wheelchair-bound passenger out of Chennai. The outcry which followed led the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to adopt guidelines which state categorically that no airline can refuse to fly persons with disability and reduced mobility. International norms also permit disabled passengers to carry assistive aids, including guide dogs by the blind. Moreover, the medical disqualifications on travel prescribed by the International Air Transport Authority do not apply to persons with cerebral palsy. Clearly, the captain in question was blissfully ignorant of these regulations. Worse still, he enforced his will, paying scant regard to the inconvenience and trauma this would cause a passenger who had paid for her journey and already been seated like every other person on board.
It is time the aviation industry got its act together on sensitising its personnel about handling passengers with particular needs. For his part, Union Minister for Social Justice Mukul Wasnik should impress upon his counterpart in the Civil Aviation ministry the need to discipline those who wilfully flouted the DGCA's guidelines in this case. A major weakness of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, is the absence of a punitive clause. This is arguably the reason why its provisions remain poorly implemented. The United Progressive Alliance government is debating fresh legislation on persons with disabilities. A test of its commitment to guarantee basic rights and equal opportunities for this segment of the population will be whether it addresses this major shortcoming. Jeeja Ghosh could not fly that day because India's disability law is up in the air. It is time to bring it down to earth, anchoring it firmly in the terrain of equality that our Constitution envisages for all citizens.