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|November 19, 1998||
Disabled citizens may find it hard to vote
As some parts of the country brace for the election, most of India's disabled citizens, numbering over 60 million, will again be forced to keep away from polling booths despite their right to political participation.
They are vulnerable to inconvenience and harassment due to lack of accessibility to the polling booths and due to general apathy towards their fate. There are also no set government guidelines to help them exercise their franchise.
' 'With a huge chunk of population sidelined from an important aspect of social and political life, we cannot boast of having a full-fledged democracy,'' says executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People Javed Abidi.
''In a country of vote bank politics, this silent minority has been rather systematically ignored. Until 1995, there was no law in India to protect the rights of disabled people,'' he said.
Even after the notification of the Disabilities Act in February 1996, its implementation is nowhere in sight. The disabilities chief commissioner is yet to be appointed, he said.
Citing numerous examples of inconvenience to the disabled in polling booths, Abidi, who himself has a locomotor disability, calls for certain changes in the polling process such as postal voting, making the booths accessible with ramps and railings for the disabled. The NCPEDP has also been lobbying for the amendment with the Election Commission.
Calling for proper guidelines at least for the blind, Jagdish Chander, who teaches political science at Hindu College in New Delhi, said, "The returning officer in the booth was good enough to allow one of my family members inside to assist me choose my candidate in the last election. But not everyone is so lucky.
"Sometimes polling officials accompany you, but how can you be sure that he did what you asked him to?'' asked Jagdish, voicing the apprehension of numerous visually blind citizens.
Expressing similar apprehensions, Salil Chaturvedi, governing council member of Score, a non-governmental organisation working for the disabled people, said the very thought of so much of inconvenience and harassment saps the will of disabled persons and discourages them from the minimum level of political participation. However, Chaturvedi, who also suffers from a locomotor disability, termed his ability to cast his ballot in the last polls as the ''fruit'' of his ''adamant nature''.
Demanding political say as a citizen's right in a vibrant democracy, Abidi said every person with a disability should have the right to be appointed in various political posts ''for we're physically and not mentally disabled.
"Or else, we should have someone in Parliament to fight for our cause," he said.
NCPEDP had released a charter of rights for the disabled in the last general election with the hope that all political parties would make suitable pronouncements in their manifestos and other policy documents regarding disability, but nothing concrete had surfaced so far.
''Although we are seldom seen, our voices rarely heard, we still hope that the rest of the population correct their myopic disability and offer us an equal share in the political process of the country," Abidi said. "After all, we also have the right to live and participate."
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