Reservations have long become a dubious instrument of vote-garnering. Recent Indian history displays some startlingly negative effects of ‘positive discrimination’. But the Supreme Court has turned reservations into a meaningful instrument again, by ordering the Centre and the states to reserve up to 3 per cent of seats in all jobs in their departments, companies and institutions for the disabled. It is India’s disgrace that the Supreme Court should have to reiterate a direction that is already implicit in the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, which is 18 years old. Among the various shocking forms of insensitivity that are normal for Indian society, a major one is the indifference towards the disabled or differently abled. It is as though they do not exist. The public space excludes them — roads, forms of transport, buildings, halls and auditoriums, public bathrooms rarely provide access or user-targeted arrangements for the differently abled. Yet at least 2.1 per cent of the population suffered from some disability or other in 2001 — this is a very shy estimate — long after the law had been passed. Such is the determined glossing over of this huge population by the rest of country that the need to design spaces with special conveniences built in for different kinds of disability has never been a priority. The arrangements for someone who cannot see, or sees little, must be different from those for one who cannot hear, or, again, for one who has difficulty in moving. A truly inclusive society is one in which all spaces are comfortable and safe for everyone, whether they be mentally challenged or physically disabled.
The Supreme Court’s order regarding jobs actually forces open all the other frontiers. Without a suitably supportive infrastructure, whether inside the office or outside on the way to and from it, no government would be able to implement the order. Sensitivity cannot be imposed, but the law can. A serious intention to carry through the court’s order would impel governments to focus on the necessary practical issues, so that disabled people can move and work without pain, exertion, anxiety or disadvantage. The practical work would induce the mindset: greater visibility and participation in productive work would become a constant reminder to those who find it easiest to forget.