Dear Maneka Gandhi, Your Unkind Statement On Mental Illness Undermines 50 Million Indians

Posted on January 30, 2016 in Health and Life

By Lipi Mehta:

Since 2014 (with the UPA government in power then), the Rights of Persons With Disabilities Bill has not been passed in Parliament. Now with the BJP government in charge, a Group of Ministers discussed the proposed bill on January 25 where Union Minister Maneka Gandhi raised objections saying that the bill does not lay criterion for determination of mentally disabled persons. “It (bill) does not differentiate between mentally ill and mentally disabled person. But there is a difference between the two. If a person is mentally ill like schizophrenic, how can he be given a job,” Gandhi said talking to reporters on the sidelines of a function.

This comment has created an uproar in the country with citizens questioning how and why people with schizophrenia cannot be a part of India’s workforce. In her defence, Maneka Gandhi has said that this issue been “completely misunderstood”. She has added that “definition of disabilities in the Bill must be clear as persons with Disability, Illness & Disease” so that the matter of who qualifies for the 3% job reservation under the bill is not left to interpretation by government officials.

While it is important to differentiate between persons with physical and mental disabilities, in order to better treatment and healthcare for all, the statement raises further questions of whether people with schizophrenia are “qualified: to fall under the 3% job reservation. The statement also ignores the many people with serious mental illnesses who might be on the path towards complete recovery or may have showed remarkable improvement. Moreover, to ask how a mentally ill person like a schizophrenic can be given a job, undermines the value of all those who are living with schizophrenia and working.

Take for instance the Aasha Employment Project where people with mental illnesses run stationery stores and even manage a paper cup production unit. Or The Banyan, a mental health NGO that is working hard to rehabilitate its patients and get them employed. While these are two names, Mrs. Gandhi’s sweeping statement undermines the value of every other person who is working hard to mainstream people with mental illnesses in society.

It has even led to the setting up of a Tumblr blog called We Can Work where people with mental illnesses are posting powerful messages to the minister.

Perhaps the real question we should be asking is why it is crucial to strengthen the conversation around mental health in India.

The reality is that 50 million people with mental health issues live in India, that is 5% of the country’s population. We need around 55,000 mental health professionals to tackle this crisis, though in reality, we only have a little over 7,000! The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled discusses a deeper problem in its letter to Mrs. Gandhi: “We feel your statement will make such persons more vulnerable. They may feel a threat to their jobs and livelihood. Many may even refrain from seeking medical and social assistance.”

That’s right, if our minister’s Disability Rights Bill doesn’t recognise the already-existing stigma faced by persons with mental illnesses in India, little can be improved when it comes to elevating their position, especially in government jobs.

In December 2015, PM Modi suggested on his radio show ‘Mann Ki Baat’ that disabled people should be called ‘Divyang‘ (with divine bodies) and not ‘Viklang‘ (with handicapped bodies). Such othering statements also do nothing to normalise and accept the presence of the disabled in society.

As for the bill, Mrs. Gandhi concluded by saying that it needs to be worked on further before presenting to the Cabinet. Well, we hope that she is right when she says the issue is “completely misunderstood”. And it would be great if the bill is worked upon further, so that we have a final draft that shows sensitivity and upholds the spirit of inclusion.