Trigger Warning: Mention of suicide and sexual abuse
Disclaimer: This piece is unrelated to any ongoing crisis in the country. All views expressed in the piece are personal and written to document some of the techniques of advocacy used by the author.
It’s a surreal feeling when an intervention plan that your team has worked on actually manifests itself. Last year on April 30, 2020, the Director of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) issued a letter to the Joint Secretary of Central Universities Department of Higher Education asking him to issue disability-specific accessibility guidelines to all educational institutions so that student with disabilities can freely exercise their right to education.
To date, there are no guidelines to monitor the accessibility of online classes. Sadly, as a direct result of the barriers faced virtually in the educational setting, a deaf girl died by suicide on February 28, 2021. In an effort to escalate the issue to the last level, we have now moved the Supreme Court to intervene to make online education accessible for persons with disabilities. We are hoping that we will be heard in a sensitive, non-partisan manner.
Today, I am not going to reminisce about the past or provide you with exciting new updates about the advocacies that Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) has been involved in. At this juncture, I will be sharing with you a first-hand account of how I understand the advocacy space.
To develop an understanding of any complex issue, it is important to identify the stakeholders and peg down their motives. I see stakeholders as variables that can be interchanged between different problems. Further, since we handle a high volume of issues, I’d like to take note and save the variables so that they serve as reference points for the future. After working within the current system, I have made a few reference points for myself and hope that you can use them as part of your blueprint for advocacy. These are messenger birds, generals, foot soldiers, activists and civil society.
Email is the digital avatar of the pigeons of the good old days. For most Central government ministries, email addresses of designated officials can be found on their respective ministerial websites. This is supposedly done to promote transparency and comply with the Right to Information (RTI) Act, Section 4(b)(ix) and (xvi), under which the government is obligated to proactively disclose contact information.
Although one would expect the modern-day avatar of pigeons to be more effective, they are certainly not. For example, this year, I’ve sent at least 25 emails to different officials, out of which only two have yielded responses. The two officials that responded did so only after I sent them a copy of the same email in the form of a letter via speed post and also got the same email hand-delivered through a volunteer. The pigeons are indeed more effective.
Other than the RTI, we have tools in the form of the CPGRAMS portal of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). It mandatory for them to reply to a public grievance within 60 days. At the end of the day, the portal’s job is to forward the inconvenience I am causing to the correct nodal authority so that they can resolve it. The fact that the PMO becomes an intermediary for the issue effectively provides you with some power in the space of the red-tape-loving bureaucrats who can’t wait to pass on the problem.
Using the portal this year, we were able to advocate with the University Grants Commission (UGC) to introduce a link to download screen readers for blind students. Later on, an audio captcha was also added to the website. This enabled blind students to download screen readers from the UGC website and also put up their grievances related to higher education with the Commission.
This is an important precedent as there are many government websites that use captcha for security purposes and they all need to be made accessible for visually impaired individuals. To give an example of the RTI online portal, a person needs to fill out a captcha to submit an application. This means that currently, a blind person cannot file an RTI application online independently. We are currently trying to rectify this issue by capitalising on the bureaucrat’s fear of the PMO.
According to data, each year 8-11 lakh students aspire to write the civil services exams, 4-5 lakh attempt to write the prelims, about 10,000-15,000 make it to the Mains, of which only 0.2% crack the divine test and become bureaucrats.
I have encountered generals who are sly and deceitful. They try to buy us out by putting us on advisory committees. They make a pretence of consulting us only to never take any of our suggestions. Of course, they would then slyly ask us not to pursue the matter further or be compelled to remove us from the negotiation. Then there are also those who don’t respond till they are pursued, chased and hounded into providing a response.
But it would be unfair to generalise the attitude of all bureaucrats. There have been some who are genuinely trying to bring change but their hands are tied. At the end of the day, they are a part of a system that has placed a million procedures whose only purpose is to create barriers in the name of checks and balances.
Last year, in a case being handled by the JAF, a 10-year-old deaf girl had been sexually abused and murdered. The municipal level officers were ashamed as one of the perpetrators’ names was left out of the charge sheet due to his ‘connection’ to the police. Working on this sensitive case was indeed disheartening in some ways. It made me wonder: why don’t people in power listen? I know there have been so many activists before me who have tread the same path and failed, will I be able to be of any help?
Luckily, the child rights team in the municipal office, along with the district magistrate, guided us every step of the way. The local team of bureaucrats helped us to appoint a lawyer and assisted us in following up with the family.
As there was only so much they could do on their end in their official capacity, they requested my support externally against people working in the same building as them. They did so by asking me to go to the media and writing to other relevant authorities who would also assist in putting pressure on the current system. Their only request for me was to keep fighting and not let go till the end. Even though the generals and foot soldiers were also a part of the system, they wanted to push for advocacy as much as I did. Sadly, the family of the victim backed out of the case and asked us to do the same.
While dealing with a sluggish non-responsive system, is it justified to get irritated with low-ranking officials and nodal officers who are just following the orders of their superiors? I understood that the system has corroded after we were denied the right to put forward a point and challenge the Ministry of Education (MoE) in the Court of The Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities.
In the above mentioned case, we were advocating for the accessibility of 12 DTH channels that were being launched to promote online education by the Ministry. I had a simple question: what plans did the MoE have for making this programme accessible for children with disabilities? Instead of allowing us to lay down the facts, the Chief Commissioner decided that I was an ‘andolanjeevi’ asking unnecessary questions, trying to arm-twist her into giving a favourable order. As the hearing was taking place virtually, she threw me out of her court.
The role of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities is to monitor the implementation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, investigate cases wherein law has been contravened, and aid the existing judicial system acting as a jurist by swiftly resolving cases and delivering justice.
It was really disheartening to see that none of these responsibilities were adhered to on that fateful day. But I was truly stunned when I angrily calling the office of the commissioner demanding to know why I was not even given a mere five minutes to make my point. After listening to my outburst, the official answering the phone said, “Sir, yeh toh kuch nahin he aapko toh pata nahin yahaan kya kya hota hai (Sir, this is nothing as compared to all that happens here.” Of course, one should appreciate the official’s candidness.
I think it is easier to wear a badge of activism and talk about or create awareness about issues. In my opinion, raising awareness is a precursor to practicing advocacy, but they are in no ways the same. Fighting for solutions for marginalised communities ties you to them, making you accountable to them and their families. This is completely different from researching, learning about issues and speaking about them at public gatherings.
Even though many others like me are at odds with the current regime at different levels advocating for different issues, it is important to note that the current tyrannical rule that is hell-bent on quashing even the scent of dissent is only one side of the system.
When I look at the civil society space as a young entrant, it has been demoralising. There is little intent to come and work together. Fragmented alliances are fighting for different pieces of the pie. They poach people and ideas only to build an image for their own self-preservation, while altruistically wearing well-crafted masks, acting like messiahs of society.
A simple reason why we don’t see path-breaking advocacy in India is because one or more of the above-listed variables — messenger birds, generals, foot soldiers, civil society and activists — fall through. For the intervention to really work, we as a people need to come together and demand changes from those in power.
Further, it’s not enough to demand changes since the nodal authorities are unempathetic and highly incompetent at communicating with each other. We need to provide the government with a concrete plan of action that they can adopt and brand as their own. Lastly, it takes a long time to see on-paper advocacy turn into on-ground changes. This can only happen through rigorous following up, along with mass awareness raising campaigns that will lead to each person on ground using on-paper policy changes to their benefit.
When I started JAF, I did not know about these variables nor did I realise the reality that our country has turned into a fascist state. As I write this piece, I am shocked at how much my thought process has changed over the past couple of years. One can say that the system has shaped me into who I am today, but I will continue to hope that in the next couple of years, rather than the system moulding me, I am able to shape it.
About the author: The author of this piece is the Founder Convenor of Javed Abidi Foundation and can be reached on Twitter @RishadShameer.