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Review: Parliamentary Standing Committee notes multiple gaps in the implementation of schemes for Persons with Disabilities

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The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment recently assessed the implementation of ‘Scheme for Implementation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (SIPDA)’. In its report, the committee noted multiple issues with allocation, lack of proposals, spending among other things. 

The Preamble to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) 2006, adopted by the United Nations, emphasizes that “Persons with disabilities include those who have long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” The expressions reflect a shift from a medical model to a social model of disability. 

In the medical model, the disability lies in the individual as it is equated with restrictions of activity with the burden of adjusting to the environment through cures, treatment, and rehabilitation. On the other hand, the social model focuses on the society which imposes undue restrictions on the behaviour of persons with an impairment. In this, disability does not lie in individuals, but in the interaction between individuals and society. It advocates that persons with disabilities are right holders and are entitled to strive for the removal of institutional, physical, informational, and attitudinal barriers in society. The World Report on Disability by World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank emphasise that while both models are often presented as dichotomous, a balanced approach is needed, giving appropriate weight to the different aspects of disability.

In the above spirit, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016 was passed by the Indian Parliament to fulfil its obligation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which India ratified in 2007.

In this article, we will look at important highlights and statistics available in the standing committee Report on ‘Assessment of Scheme for Implementation of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (SIPDA)’. The article will focus on the allocation of funds, the performance of sub-schemes and important campaigns.

Presently, there are 13 components under SIPDA

According to Persons with Disabilities in India – A Statistical Profile 2021, the major sources of statistics on disability are the decennial Population Censuses and the large-scale sample surveys on disability conducted by the National Sample Survey (NSS) of the National Statistical Office. The publication depicts a situational analysis of disabled persons in India mainly on the basis of the results of the NSS 76th round Surveys on Disability (July- December 2018) and Census of India 2011.  As per the Census 2011, there are 14.9 million men with disabilities as compared to 11.9 million women in the country. The total number of differently-abled people is over 18 million in rural areas and 8.1 million in urban settings. The percentage of men with disabilities is 2.41% as against 2.01% in women. Social groups wise analysis shows 2.45% of the total disabled population belong to the Scheduled Castes (SC), 2.05 per cent to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 2.18 per cent to other than SC/ST.

The Scheme for Implementation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (SIPDA) is an umbrella scheme with 13 sub-schemes to provide financial assistance for undertaking various activities outlined in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act, 2016. The Act endorses the rights of Persons with Disabilities for access to education, vocational training, employment, public transport, built-up environment, information, and communication ecosystems and upholds their independence and dignity.

At present SIPDA has thirteen components, added gradually over the years. 

  • In 2018-19, there were six components, namely; (i) Creation of Barrier Free Environment (ii) Accessible India Campaign (iii) National Action Plan for Skill Development for PwDs (iv) Composite Regional Centres (CRCs) (v) District Disability Rehabilitation Centre (DDRCs) (vi) Unique Disability Identification (UDID).
  • In 2019-20, four more components viz., (i) Awareness Generation and Publicity (AGP) (ii) Research on Disability-Related Technology, Product, and Issues (iii) In-service Training (iv) Incentive to Employees were added.
  • In 2020-21, four independent miscellaneous schemes i.e., Deaf Colleges, Media, State Spinal Injury Centre, and Braille Press were merged with the SIPDA whereas two components namely District Disability Rehabilitation Centre (DDRCs) and Composite Regional Centres (CRCs) were removed. In 2021-22, the Indian Spinal Injury Centre was also brought under SIPDA.

‘Lack of adequate proposals responsible for under-utilisation of funds’

The Budgetary/Revised Estimates and Actual Expenditure for the preceding five years and Budget estimates for the current year under the SIPDA are depicted in the chart below.  

  • There is a substantial decline in Revised Estimates and Actual Expenditure over the years, compared to the budget estimates. 
  • There has been a significant difference between the allocation of funds between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

The Department attributed the decline in expenditure in 2019-20 mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department explained that this was also because District Disability Rehabilitation Centre (DDRCs) and Composite Regional Centres (CRCs) coming out of the SIPDA scheme.

SIPDA is Central Sector Scheme, hence it is dependent on States/UTs to receive proposals properly for processing the proposal and releasing the Grants. The Department, on being enquired by the Committee, explained that the SIPDA scheme had to be downsized by 55 crores in 2020-21 after anticipating that major components of SIPDA schemes have not received adequate proposals to meet the expenditure up to the level of Budget Estimate. This was mainly related to the National Action Plan (NAP) for Skill Development.

The Committee expressed concern on the expenditure status of the scheme. According to the Committee report, the budget for SIPDA, which should have been at least doubled in a span of 5 years to achieve the objectives envisaged under the added sub-schemes/components, has remained almost stagnant. The pace of expenditure during the year 2016-17 onwards has not increased despite the expansion in the scope of the schemes during the period, rather the expenditure has nose-dived in 2019-20 to 2020-21.

Further, the Committee held that holding COVID-19 responsible for it is not justified as the Department has themselves also stated reasons like pendency of Utilisation Certificates (UCs), lack of proposals under NAP for Skill Development as well as Braille Press sub-scheme, etc. for a reduction in actual expenditure.

The Committee asserted that the Department should have analysed the reasons for an insufficient number of proposals under these sub-schemes and promoted the same. Poorly performing components like Braille press, research on disability technology, etc. should have been pre-examined.

Limited states working towards building barrier-free environment under SIPDA; no progress in making websites accessible

The barrier-free sub-scheme component is under SIPDA from the beginning i.e., 1999. Under this, the grant is provided to Departments of the State Governments/UTs, Autonomous Bodies/ Public Sector Undertakings including Central/State Universities to provide a barrier-free environment for persons with disabilities. This would include provision for ramps, rails, lifts, accessible toilets for wheelchair users, Braille signage and auditory signals, tactile flooring, slopes in pavements for the easy access of wheelchair users, engraving on the surface of zebra crossing for the blind or for persons with low vision, engraving on the edges of railway platforms for the blind or for low vision and devising appropriate symbols of disability, etc.

For creating a barrier-free environment, grant-in-aid released to states and institutions is depicted below.

  • The status of the grant-in-aid reveals that it was released to a limited number of states/UTs from 2017 to 2021.
  • Only 11 States/UTs benefitted under this component since 2017-18.

Upon enquiry, the Department explained that the fund has been released only to a limited number of states because no proposals have been submitted by the remaining states. The Department also clarified that no pending proposals are lying at the Department for previous years as well.

Further, grants-in-aid were released to the Universities/Colleges/ Institutions etc. in 9 States only. 

The Committee noted that since disability being a state subject, it is the responsibility of States/UTs to make their buildings and other infrastructure accessible as per RPwD Act, 2016. The committee enquired about the time frame fixed for the creation of a barrier-free environment and steps being taken by the Department to sensitize the States/UTs, from where the proposals are not being received.

However, the report reveals that the Department has no such timeline but takes serious efforts to sensitize the States/UTs to send the proposals under the Barrier-Free component. 

The Committee noted that there appears to be a lack of enthusiasm amongst State Governments/UT administrations on this sub-scheme. The Committee recommended that the Department needs to make extra efforts than merely sending routine letters to raise awareness, sensitize and remind States/UTs every year for sending viable proposals if they intend to make this sub-scheme successful. The Department could offer expert advice on the preparation of viable proposals, preparing ready reckoners, and setting of annual targets as being done under Accessible India Campaign (AIC) etc.

Under the barrier-free component in SIPDA, grants are also provided to make Government websites at the Centre/State and District levels accessible to PwDs, in compliance with the guidelines issued by the National Informatics Centre and Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances.

‘The report reveals that, in last three years, no funds have been released for accessible website under Creation of Barrier-Free Environment of SIPDA’ 

The Committee enquired how the Department proposes to make private websites accessible to PwDs, as currently there are no guidelines in this regard. In response, the department informed that they have written to the Ministry of Information Technology and Electronics (MeiTY) to make accessibility guidelines for the private websites also since currently only GIGW guidelines are meant for government websites.

The Committee counted these as a major setback and recommended that the methodology adopted for fund allocation/release under this component should be reworked immediately.

The slow progress of AIC; only 29.7% of identified buildings and 64.61% of identified websites made accessible since 2015

While the Barrier-free environment sub-scheme is under SIPDA since 1999, a nationwide campaign, Accessible India Campaign (AIC) or Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan, was launched on 03 December 2015 to achieve universal accessibility for persons with disabilities in Built Environment (Buildings) under an identified list, Transport System, and Information & Communication Technology (ICT) ecosystem. Under this Campaign, grants are given to States/UTs to conduct accessibility audits and making only the identified public places/infrastructure of States/UTs fully accessible in a built-up environment and making identified States/UTs websites accessible. 

The Committee noted that the overall progress of the AIC or Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan has been slow. Only 494 buildings (29.7%) out of a total of 1662 identified buildings have been made accessible by 9 States/UTs and 558 websites (64.61%) out of 917 websites have been made accessible under this Abhiyan since its inception in December 2015.

Despite postponing the initial target date of July 2016, several States viz. Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, and Tripura still do not have any targets/timelines for making 193 buildings accessible by the extended date of June 2022. The Committee also found while that penal provisions under the Act exist, but those have not been invoked in the cases where the performance of States/UTs and line Ministries is not satisfactory and instead, target dates are being extended continuously. 

The Committee was also not satisfied with the pace of work of the line Ministries as Railways are lagging much behind the schedule of making model Railway Stations or providing complete facilities for PwDs in their identified stations. Similarly, the progress in other transportation sectors i.e., Airports and road transport is discouraging as mostly ‘partial’ accessibility has been ensured. 

In conclusion, the Committee recommended that there should not be any further extension beyond June 2022. The committee also recommended invoking penal provisions, in case the timelines are not met, as a last resort. 

Major lapses in skill training and employability of PwDs under National Action Plan for Skill Development

A National Action Plan for Skill Development, a central sector scheme, was launched pan India by the Department in collaboration with the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in March 2015. Skill training is imparted through organizations empanelled as Training Partners from across the country. 

The details of the funds allocated and released are depicted below.

  • Since its inception, the NAP for Skill Development has trained 1.27 lakh PwDs.
  • In 2018-19, a target of training to 40,000 was fixed and 47,286 beneficiaries were trained.
  • While the target for 2018-19 to meet the yearly targets for 2019-20 and 2020-21 could not be achieved.

Upon enquiry, the Department submitted that no yearly target was fixed till 2017-18.  During the year 2019-20, NAP underwent a rigorous overhaul in the process as well as the introduction of several monitoring mechanisms. Furthermore, in the current financial year, due to the outbreak of the pandemic, training commenced by some ETPs of the Department in March 2020 could not be completed, whereas some other ETPs which had planned to commence the training could not even start it.

The Committee finds that the National Action Plan for Skill Development, since its inception, had to undergo vigorous overhaul within a span of two years due to operational issues such as lack of guidelines, non-commencement of training or substantial delay in commencement and completion of training, lack of infrastructural facilities, etc. 

The Committee strongly emphasised that the number of beneficiaries would have been more had the Department prudently drawn up proper guidelines at the beginning itself. Now, the Department has reportedly taken several initiatives such as switching from ‘project’ mode to ‘batch mode’, the introduction of Biometric attendance, an inspection of centres, condition of three years of experience for ETPs in skill training, etc. to address the operational issues. In the light of these initiatives, the Committee expects that the quality of skill training and the number of beneficiaries would improve in the coming years.

Further, it was found that only 41,931 PwDs have been employed so far out of 1.27 lakh trained, despite several measures such as an instruction to ETPs to ensure employment after training, NHFDC extending loans to PwDs, the establishment of NSK’s in various States, etc.

The Committee, therefore, recommend that a comprehensive study should be conducted to identify the reasons for such low employability despite several initiatives of the Department and suggest a suitable remedy. 

Meagre funding under R&D, high dependence on imports

The Scheme for research on disability-related technology, products and issues was launched in January 2015 with an objective to promote research in the prevention and prevalence of disability and the application of science and technology for the development of indigenous aids and appliances for PwDs.

The Committee noted that the fund allocation under the scheme is too meagre. Only ₹ 3.30 crores were allocated for research on disability-related technology, products and issues and ₹ 1.49 crores could only be spent from 2016-17.

While Committee noted that products like ‘Sugamya’ Cane and Cochlear implant have been developed, the limited availability of funds is hampering the research and as a result, the Department has not been able to develop even small products such as retrofit kits and batteries for motorized tricycles necessitating those to be imported. 

The Committee stressed the need to enhance allocation to research, develop technology indigenously, and minimize dependence on import. The Committee also recommended that the Department should keep abreast of technological developments and involved talented private entrepreneurs in the country, wherever needed.

No takers for scheme incentivizing employers to employ PwDs

To encourage the private sector to employ persons with disabilities, a scheme of incentives to the employers in the private sector for providing employment to PwD was launched in 2008-09. The scheme envisaged payment of employer’s contribution for 3 years to the EPF and ESI by the Government with a salary ceiling of ₹ 25,000/- per month. The scheme was revised from 01 April 2016, whereby, payment of employers’ contribution for EPF and ESIC by the Government has been increased up to 10 years. The salary ceiling has been removed for the PwD employees. The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) will bear one-third of the gratuity amount due and admissible to PwD employees. 

The Committee notes that no funds have been released under the scheme since 2015-16. 

Upon enquiry, the Department submitted that despite publicity of the scheme, not much response has been given by the private employers.

The Committee recommend that the Department in their process of review should exhaustively examine the reasons due to which the Scheme has failed and examine the role of entrepreneurs/employers in offering employment to the disabled in advanced countries. They may need to be informed about the kind of jobs that can be handled by PwDs efficiently. The Committee also recommended that providing direct incentives to private employers may work instead of opting to share EPF contributions. They further feel that suggestions can also be obtained from the entrepreneurs/employers and other stakeholders before the scheme is revised.

Sugamya Bharat App enables the public to highlight accessibility-related issues, slow implementation of PwD helpline

The Committee was informed that the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment launched the Sugamya Bharat App – a Crowdsourcing Mobile App on 02 March 2021. This App enables PwD and the general public to bring to notice accessibility-related issues that require redressal. Upon receipt of complaints through the App, the complaints are forwarded to nodal authorities, at the Central Government Ministries/Departments level or States/UTs level, by the dedicated Project Management Unit (PMU) after screening the complaints. The nodal authorities are responsible for taking action on the complaints.

The Committee appreciated the launch of the ‘Sugamya Bharat’ App with an objective to crowdsource the complaints being faced by PwDs regarding the inaccessibility of public infrastructure services. The Committee noted that out of total of 518 complaints received, 158 only could be closed and 360 were forwarded to the concerned authorities. And only 26 complaints have been resolved to date.

The Committee envisions that the number of complaints would multiply once the app gains popularity amongst the public. Keeping the volume of complaints into consideration and the time consumed in addressing the complaints, as only 26 complaints have been resolved out of 518 received, the Committee recommended a strong mechanism needs to be developed to follow up and resolve the complaints in the minimum time possible.

The Committee also expressed that wide publicity should be given to Sugamya Bharat APP so that more PwDs use it and all the stakeholders, who are responsible for providing accessibility-related facilities and services to PwDs, get feedback from the beneficiaries. The Committee also opined that the nature of the complaints can be studied to understand the problems faced by PwDs in a particular area so that they can be addressed suitably in the upcoming projects. 

Moreover, the Central Advisory Board on disability, in November 2020, had urged the States/UTs to set up helpline numbers for disabled persons. The Committee finds that only 10 States have established helplines to date, which does not include Delhi. The Committee recommended that the matter should be vigorously pursued with all the remaining States/UTs to ensure that helpline is established in all the States/UTs within three months.

Featured Image: Schemes for Persons with Disabilities

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