In the matter of “Rajive Raturi vs. Union of India” being argued by the Disability Law Initiative and the Human Rights Law Network, the Supreme Court had on 15th December 2017 passed a slew of directions to the Center and States to make public places, transport systems and information services accessible. Of particular note was the direction to set up Disability Advisory Boards. This presents both an opportunity and a need for the stakeholders in the disability sector to ensure that the Advisory Boards are properly constituted, have the requisite representations from civil society and disabled persons’ organizations, and function according to the mandate in the Disability Act.
The 2016 Disabilities Act provides for the setting up of the Disability Advisory Boards by the Center and the States. These are therefore “statutory bodies”, vested with the functions, powers and duties provided in the Act. Why are these important? Firstly, the Act virtually makes the Disability Advisory Boards the guardians of disability rights. They are tasked with evolving the affirmative action policy, guidelines and instructions in all areas affecting persons with disabilities and ensuring their implementation. The Act provides them with wide powers and duties, such as:
- Evolving a comprehensive policy for the empowerment of persons with disabilities
- Reviewing and coordinating the activities of all Departments of Government
- Providing for schemes and projects for persons with disabilities
- Ensuring accessibility and reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities in information services, built environment and their participation in social life
Secondly, the Act constitutes the Advisory Boards with the highest levels of representation from the Government, autonomous institutes and civil society. Amongst their members are the Union and State Ministers in charge of disability affairs, Members of Parliament / Legislature, Secretaries in charge of all major Government departments, Directors of the National Institutes for persons with disabilities, and recognized experts and persons from civil society in the field of disability. The Advisory Boards are, therefore, to be comprised of persons with the highest levels of authority and expertise in matters concerning disabled persons. There is hardly any doubt as to their potency in accomplishing their functions.
Thirdly, the fact that the Disability Advisory Boards are statutory bodies means that they are a creation of an Act passed by Parliament, rather than an act of the Executive. The overarching duty of the Advisory Boards is to faithfully carry out the mandate provided by the Disability Act, rather than being affected by the vagaries or shifting priorities of the Government of the day. They are to maintain continuity in disability policy and affirmative action, even as the political executive changes with every election.
Whereas it is often rued that disabled persons have little political influence, the Disability Advisory Boards, in some measure, compensate for that so that affirmative action for disabled persons is carried out. There is therefore an opportunity for the disability sector to weigh in and remain vigilant that they are constituted and function as per the provisions in the 2016 Disability Act.