ON A MISSION: DWARF AND STUDENT
Shillong student Ridahun Khriam
New Delhi, Nov. 29: Ridahun Khriam treks through the villages of Meghalaya with a copy of the disability act in her hand, urging people to use the law for their protection.
Some 2,500km away in Telangana's capital Secunderabad, Bugga Mallesh, once a circus clown, sits on a pavement and tries to do the same.
Khriam, 26, is a second-year student who suffers from muscular dystrophy, a condition in which the muscles grow weaker and weaker and waste away. Mallesh, 48, is all of three feet tall.
Secunderabad clown Bugga Mallesh
The two have never met, but as the Persons with Disability Act, 1995, completes 20 years next month, Khriam and Mallesh have taken the lead to spread awareness about it across the country.
"There are people across Meghalaya who don't know that there is protection for people with disabilities. Along with other activists, I try to make these villagers, many of whom are illiterate, understand their rights," Khriam said over the phone from Shillong.
"I always carry a copy of the act in Khasi because I want to tell people the provisions in their own language, so that they can ask me questions."
Khriam's story is unique not because she started work with a Shillong-based disability organisation at 18 but because she learnt the benefits of the disability act early. But Mallesh realised he too had rights only in 2003 when he was denied a bus pass.
"I used to cry every day and wish I were dead. One day it hit me that the way God has made me is a blessing. People see me and laugh. Isn't that a great thing? I can bring smiles to the faces of people," said Mallesh, who worked in a circus in undivided Andhra for 16 years and retired when his daughter was born.
"My father was a dwarf, my brother and I are dwarfs, my wife and children are dwarfs. My fight for the rights of dwarfs is for a very personal reason. To give my children a better life," said Mallesh, who sells handkerchiefs and socks on the roadside for a living.
Speaking over phone from Secunderabad, Mallesh said he had formed the Twin Cities Dwarf Association and fought a protracted battle for the rights of dwarfs. Finally in 2005, Andhra notified dwarfs in the "orthopaedically handicapped" category, enabling them to seek benefits under the disability act.
Today, almost a decade later, Mallesh's larger dream seems to be on the verge of fulfilment - dwarfs across the country stand to gain from his struggle as dwarfism has been included in the new disability bill, which is pending in the Rajya Sabha.
With this bill, around 50,000 dwarfs in the country can expect the same benefits as their Andhra and Telangana counterparts - reservations in government jobs, free travel passes in buses and trains, and many similar benefits.
"I still sit on the streets and talk to people, tell them about their rights. We are poor people, all we need are small favours from the government --- a free bus pass, small loans and benefits so we can send our children to school. This is all we need," said Mallesh, who has two kids.
For Khriam, her ultimate dream is to see that all persons with disabilities in her state get to study in college and get a chance in life.
"Recently, these two girls in Shillong were denied seats in a college because they were blind. I went to the college with them with a copy of the act and asked the officials how they dared to discriminate against them. I said according to the act I could complain and they'd go to jail. You should have seen one official's face. He looked scared," she said.
However, Khriam seems to be losing her battle with her condition and uses a crutch nowadays to walk.
"The new bill will give more protection to people with disabilities, and I want to see it happen before I go," she said.