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Saturday, December 02, 2000

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The disabled count, but where is the Ministry?

By Garimella Subramaniam

If the commemoration of World Disabled Day this year is to signify anything of substance, it could not be other than by seizing upon the occasion to ensure that the disabled are counted in the Census of February 2001. If it is no longer going to be enough on such occasions to mouth platitudes about the ``extraordinary capabilities'' of the disabled or the callous indifference of society towards them, a good deal of it is due to some hard-nosed thinking all round that lead the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to include the disabled in the next Census.

But even as the campaign to ensure maximum enumeration of the disabled in the Census steadily gathers momentum, there is nevertheless cause for dismay in view of the many regions that are yet to be covered. There is no denying the importance of the campaign, considering that this is only the second time in a Census conducted in independent India that disability is being canvassed, and equally critically, the first time that the disabled are being enumerated as part of the household schedule.

The current endeavour could not have commenced on a more positive note, with none other than the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner of India, Mr. Jayant Kumar Bantia, spearheading the campaign. His address early in October in Delhi in the first of four zonal interactive sessions between officials from the Census department and institutions working in the disability sector set the tone for several fruitful exercises to follow. The proactive participation from the Tamil Nadu Census Department, enlisting the support of various Non-Governmental Organisations, has indeed been equally commendable.

The special modules on women and children and on disability incorporated into virtually every round of the department's training of enumerators sent out the message loud and clear that efforts such as these would have to supplement the symbolic displays of solidarity if real and lasting transformation is to be achieved. Intended primarily to sensitise enumerators on the need to break through stereotypes while canvassing the respective questions, these modules may have provided them with invaluable practical inputs. In the coming weeks, enumerators in the remotest regions are expected to be acquainted with the subtle nuances in the questionnaire.

The regional workshops held in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai addressed two distinct concerns pertaining to the questionnaire. (a) The formidable challenge before enumerators when they are out in the field to canvass the question, and (b) the scope for counting persons with impairments that are not included in the Census. The plea for caution on the likely reticence of respondents to disclose disability-related information, especially of the girl child and more so in the case of a mental disability, may prepare enumerators to the challenges ahead.

However, it is equally important not to overemphasise these aspects in view of the possible negative fallout. The best answer to any real dilemma in this sensitive area is perhaps to adopt a professional approach. In relation to the second concern, there have been suggestions that persons with cerebral palsy for instance, could have themselves counted under disability in movement. This could well be the appropriate response in the circumstances. However, decisions in similar cases should perhaps be left to the discretion of respondents, who should see that persons with any type of disability are counted among the five umbrella groups.

Conspicuous by its near-total absence so far in this campaign has been the Union Ministry of Family Welfare and Social Empowerment and its counterparts in the States. Having to contend with inaccurate data for decades and having been in some ways instrumental to the inclusion of disabilities in the 2001 Census, the Ministry should have been at the forefront to raise public awareness on the need to disclose disability-related information. But once the decision was taken, the Ministry seems to have taken a backseat as though gathering data was the job of the Census department alone. It is here that the collaborative endeavour of the Census officials in Chennai and the NGOs stands apart. In stark contrast, the palpable lack of inputs from the Social Welfare departments and Disabilities Commissionerates typifies the more familiar converse scenario. The irony would not be lost on all those who have been following the `Disabilities and Census 2001' campaign when the Ministry of Social Welfare ritualistically observes World Disabled Day this Sunday.

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