PUCL Bulletin, December 2001

Shocking neglect of rights of disabled persons
-- By Javed Abidi

In a most tragic incident at Erwadi, near Ramanathapuram, 25 people including 11 women were charred to death. A devastating fire broke out at 5 am, in the thatched hostel housing them. Out of the 46 hostel inmates, 40 were chained to their beds. They kept screaming for help but no one came to their rescue.
The 46 hostel inmates were mentally ill. Erwadi is considered a holy place and has a Dargah. People from various parts of the country brought their loved ones to this place in the belief that the Dargah here had magical powers to cure mental illness. During the course of the 'treatment', these persons with mental illness were frequently caned, whipped and beaten up in the name of 'driving away the evil'. During the day, they were tied to trees with thick ropes. At night, they were tied to their beds with iron chains.

After the incident, the area DIG, the SP and the Collector 'rushed' to the spot 'to assess the situation'. Eyewitnesses told the media that, "had their legs and wrists not been chained, they could have escaped the blaze", These eyewitnesses also reported that most inmates were kept chained 'as per normal practice' and that the alarm raised by some of the inmates (when the fire broke out) was ignored by the hostel owners who mistook it to be their 'usual cries'.

If what you have read till now is not gruesome, then pray what else is? As I write this article, the 'toll' has risen to 27. In simple language, two more totally innocent persons have died. While the fire made headline news in most newspapers, this rise in 'toll' by two was just a small one-column inch kind of news in today's papers. In a few days, after a few editorials have been written and articles (like this one!) have been printed, the issue will get wiped out from the minds of the public. But should this be allowed to happen?

To my mind, the answer is a clear no. This is too important an issue to being allowed to get written off. What happened at Erwadi was horrible and gruesome tragedy and a concerted effort is required by all concerned to ensure that this kind of an incident is not repeated.

According to newspaper reports, there are least 15 more such 'mental asylums' just around the Erwadi Dargah with more than 1000 mentally ill persons. Then, there is an All India Pingla Ashram in Patiala and Dargah Quadri Bogdag in Hyderabad and hundreds, perhaps thousands of such hostels, institutions and asylums all over the country. The fact of the matter is that even the conditions in the regular, government owned mental hospitals, numbering 43, merits severe condemnation.

Once upon a time, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had prepared a detailed report on this issue. Two years ago, even NIMHANS had prepared a 'comprehensive' report for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). One can safely presume that these reports are gathering a good amount of dust on some politician's table or in some bureaucrat's almirah.
The persons with disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act was passed by both the houses of our parliament in a single day in December 1995. There was much hope, even euphoria, amongst disabled people and their parents, families, and friends. The law was a notified on 7th February 1996. It has been five long years now.

The disability Act of 1995 defines 'disability' to mean:

  1. blindness;
  2. low vision,
  3. leprosy-cured;
  4. hearing impairment;
  5. loco motor disability;
  6. mental retardation; and
  7. mental illness.

The day after the Erwadi tragedy, when a senior journalist contacted the concerned officer in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, this senior bureaucrat tried to wash her hands off the issue by saying that mental illness was not their concern and that the journalist should contact someone in the Health Ministry. When the journalist pointed out the definition of disability under The Disability Act of 1995, the bureaucrat referred her on to the Chief Commissioner for persons with Disabilities (CCPD). When this journalist contacted the CCPD ('eminent social worker' Dr. Uma Tuli), she nervously mumbled something to the effect that the matter was already under the consideration of NHRC, etc., etc.

So what is it after all that everyone from the Ministry of Health and Family welfare (nice, long name!) to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (nicer, longer name!!) to the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities are all ping-ponging the issue? The answer is tragic and yet very simple - none of them have an iota of a clue about the problem at hand and while hanging dearly to their precious little offices, none of them have done even one percent of what they were supposed to do.

According to an estimate, mental disorders afflict five percent of the country's population. With as many as five crore of our people, our citizens in need of special care, the importance of setting up an effective, countrywide system of mental health and social care cannot be over emphasised.

Each State should have a Mental Health Authority but most have not bothered to do so. Eighty percent of our districts do not even have a psychiatrist in public service. The World Health Organisation defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being". However, in our country, mental health care is not perceived as an important aspect of public health care. The lack of interests on the part of those who inherit Nirman Bhawan (read Ministry of Health etc., etc.,) is appaling. The gods and goddesses of the Indian disability sector look at mental illness (a swell as metal retardation) merely from the mental health point of view. They remain blinkered to WHO's well rounded definition where a human beings physical and more importantly, social well being is directly linked to her/his metal well being. So therefore, if she/he is mentally ill or mentally retarded, how is she/he not disabled? But then, those who inherit Shastri Bhawan (read Ministry of social Justice, etc., etc.,) remain uneducated and unaware to the extent that they are not even aware of their own law!

The Disability Act of 1995 not only included mental illness under the definition of 'disability but also mandated that its Central Coordination Committee (which, by the way, has representation at the 'Secretary to the Government of India' level of the Health Ministry!) will: (1) review and coordinate the activities of all governmental and nongovernmental Organisations which are dealing with matters relating to persons with disabilities; (2) develop a national policy to address issues faced by persons with disabilities; (3) advise on the formulation of policies, programmes, legislations, and projects with respect to disability; etc.

So what review or coordination has taken place over the last five years, since the passage and enactment of these wonderful pieces of legislation? Which national policy vis-à-vis. Mental illness has been formulated?

How many programmes or projects have been funded or launched for the welfare of persons with mental illness? The answer is a big zero. Oh, but then, mental illness is the seventh disability!

The Central Coordination Committee is supposed to be the highest policy making body when it comes to the welfare and well being of India's disabled citizens. The law mandates that it shall meet atleast once in every six months. Since the notification of the disability Act on 7th February 1996, it should have atleast 11 times by now. However, according to the affidavit filed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in January 2001, before the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India, only two meetings of the Committee have been held during the last five years. The second and the last meeting were held on 27th November 1998!

If a horse is caned or a bird caged, Hon'ble Minister of Social Justice Smt. Maneka Gandhi thunders and shrieks. People are hauled up; some lose their jobs and some are even put in jail.

Madam Minister, here we are talking about Human Rights! About five crores of our citizens; our own brothers and sisters. They are being caned, whipped and beaten up as you read this article. They are tied to a tree with a thick rope. When night falls, many of them will be chained to their beds. And, God forbid, a fire may break out again.

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