Sunil Kumar, Blind Workers Union
(A Unit of All India Federation of Blind Workers)
Affiliated to Workers Unity Center of India, WUCI
Today, on December 3, 2011, more than a thousand visually challenged workers from Benaras, Nasik, Kanpur, Faridabad, Bahadurgadh and Delhi participated in a massive protest rally on Parliament Street. Their rally was taken out from Jantar Mantar to Parliament Street on the occasion of World Disability Day. It was a culmination of an earlier struggle these blind workers have carried out against a well-known NGO which employs and exploit them, i.e. the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). The rally was an extremely important moment for these workers since they were using World Disability Day to expose how they were still denied many fundamental rights at workplaces. Instead of celebrating this day in the usual festive manner, these blind workers celebrated World Disability Day as a black day, which marked unfulfilled promises of equality.
Initially, the Delhi Police refused to allow the rally to proceed to Parliament Street. However, the agitated workers refused to be held back and broke free of the barricades so as to march onto Parliament Street. Quite expectedly, their fiery spirit did not mellow down, despite being manhandled. Following their protest rally, a delegation of the workers submitted a memorandum to the Hon’ble Minister of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. The delegation met the concerned minister, Shri Mukul Wasnik, and apprised him of plight of blind workers. They drew the minister’s attention to the fact that the government was doing little to prevent the rampant violation of its own laws pertaining to disability. In particular, the workers highlighted the violation of several provisions in the Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunity, Protection of rights and full participation) Act of 1995.
When discussing matters with the Minister, the workers highlighted how section 33 of this Act, which provides 3% reservation in identified posts (1% being earmarked for the blind and low vision persons), is unable to provide sufficient respite to the disabled because of inadequate job creation in the public sector itself. Another important provision in this 1995 Act which is far from being implemented is section 41. It provides incentives to disabled persons so as to ensure that at least 5% jobs of all workforces goes to them.
However, as highlighted by the protesting workers, both the older laws and policies as well as the newest government policies are failing miserably when it comes to ensuring a dignified and productive life to disabled people, in particular, disabled workers. For example, even the recently adopted National Policy for Persons with Disabilities (2006), which provides incentives, awards, tax exemption, etc. is redundant because the private sector which employs a large number of disabled workers, is least interested in implementing such policies, let alone statutory labour laws pertaining to minimum wages and parity at work. In fact, the promise of the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities (2006) to create one lakh jobs is still a mirage today. In this light, the recommendations of the Sudha Kaul Committee which was constituted to help frame a policy on disability, are also flawed. This Committee, for example, has made no recommendations with respect to labour rights relating to safety when assisting in the drafting of the Right of Persons with Disability Bill, 2011.
The gathering of workers on Parliament Street was addressed by aggrieved workers (those employed by National Federation of the Blind) as well as their leaders. Shri Alok Kumar from the All India Federation of the Blind addressed the gathering, and argued how shameful it was that National Federation of the Blind was also commemorating World Disability Day when this NGO itself exploited the impoverished blind workers. He went on to argue how necessary it was for the government to create more jobs opportunities for disabled workers, and how the government should ensure that all statutory labour laws are implemented in production centres run by “social service” organizations (like NFB) as well as other employers. Indeed, almost every blind worker who stood up to speak, emphasized that NGOs like NFB as well as other employers, act as if they are doing the blind workers a favour by employing them. In reality, as employers they earn huge profits from the labour of these workers. NGOs, in particular, also amass huge amounts of funds from the Government/foreign funding agencies by using the face of these poor blind workers.
It is with the express purpose of attaining greater job opportunities for disabled workers as well as parity in work conditions and wages between blind workers and sighted workers that the spirited rally of blind workers marched onto Parliament Street.