'Sensitise govt officials'

Hot seat: Sruti Mohapatra; social activist  

By Subhashish Mohanty
  • Published 19.11.16
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Your brainchild, Anjali, has completed 15 years - evolving from a creative platform for differently-abled children to a much-acclaimed international children's festival, which concluded on Friday. Did you ever think you would come this far?

Anjali has been able to establish a model for joyful learning. We have surged ahead despite all odds and I am happy about what we have achieved. We have successfully brought back the dropout dibyang (differently-abled) children to schools. Besides, we have succeeded in sensitising youths in the city and across the state about disability. This year, more than 3,000 youths attended the three-day programme.

What is the objective of your campaign?

To showcase the potential of our children (not confined to the disabled) before society. The children of mainstream schools are also joining us. We even blindfold them at times and try to give them a feeling of what their friends, who have disabilities, might be going through. We bring them to our platform and talk to them about the issue of disability. We also focus on creating a spirit of volunteerism among college students.

Ira Singhal, the differently-abled girl, who topped the IAS examination in 2014, is an inspiration for others. You, yourself, had also qualified for the all-India examination, but could not make it because of your disability. How do you see the change over the years?

If Ira Singhal had not stood first, perhaps she would not have been given the chance to join the service. Prior to that, she had qualified for the IRS but was not allowed to join. She is still fighting that case. Singhal has been able to join the civil service because of NGOs fighting for the cause of people like her at the national level. Things are changing. I have to move on. My objective is to bring smile on the faces of lakhs of children.

You are also campaigning for tourist places such as Puri and Konark to be made disabled-friendly. What has been the progress so far?

In 2012, under the leadership of the then culture and tourism secretary, Ashok Tripathy, we had planned a barrier-free tourist circuit connecting the Rajarani Temple, Dhauli, Konark and Puri. But everything stopped following the change of the secretary. Out work has been undone. Policy changes with the change of chairs. How long will we work on the whims of babus? We can create ability shacks for this purpose.

What is that?

These shacks can have volunteers or guides, trained in sign language, to help the elderly and persons with disabilities. We chalked out a proper plan on the issue.

Under the scheme, two disabled persons would be given jobs. They would be provided with the crutches and wheelchairs. They would also assist taxi drivers. The Gujarat government has adopted the model. Even Ladakh has introduced a scheme called Himalaya on Wheels. But, we are yet to implement it here.

The state government has introduced a Odisha State Youth Policy. Do you think youths with disabilities have benefited from it?

It's better not to comment on this issue. The government thinks the law can be a substitute of state policy on disability. I would rather not comment on such a ridiculous thought.

You seem to be upset with the government because it is not helping you...

I am not taking help for Sruti Mohapatra. My aim is that the last youth of the last village of Odisha gets the benefit of various schemes. I want to cite the example of a disabled youth Pradeep (100 per cent visually-impaired) with 80 per cent marks who got admission at BJB College. But, he faced problems as there were no books for the disabled. He encountered other problems as well. The college demanded money from him for admission into the hostel. As his father is a roadside vendor, he did not have the required money. He even met the district collector. Instead of helping him, the collector suggested that he meet the department officials. But the department officials refused to help him saying that they had no scheme.

Later, he approached us for help. We were surprised to know that he only required Rs 17,000 to sort out his problems. We requested our well-wishers to support him. Debasis Patnaik, an entrepreneur, popularly know as Debu, and Saswat Mishra, an advocate from Cuttack, came to his rescue.

Are you not getting the required support from the government?

When Arti Ahuja was at the helm of affairs, we got tremendous support. Even Santosh Sarangi had come out in a big way to help us. But here, the government policy changes with the change of person in the chair. We are absolutely not getting any support at this time. I don't know why they discriminate between government programmes and events organised by the NGOs. Government programmes such as Sargiful and Rainbow are borne out of our programmes.

How much funds are required to organise a festival like Anjali? Are you getting support from the corporate sector, who have funds for such initiatives under their corporate social responsibility account?

We require at least Rs 1 crore to organise the festival. The companies and firms in Odisha are not positive. Only one of the public sector companies, the ONGC, and the Aditya Birla Group have come out to support us. But what about the rest? There are so many companies in the state. I wonder why they should not support a noble cause like this.

Unicef must be supporting this noble cause...

Unicef, which stands for the right of children, does not even acknowledge our letters. They support the festivals borne out of Anjali, such as Sargiful and Rainbow. I want to ask why don't they support us. What's wrong with us? Is it a crime to organise a festival for children with disabilities?

Why are not you taking it up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

The Centre has launched an accessible India campaign. They have empanelled Swabhiman, our organisation, to conduct a study on accessibility in various buildings. We have conducted the study and also submitted our report to the Centre. The bigger question is when the report will be implemented.

You have been working in this field for the past 25 years. Now, many things have been changed. How do you see the difference between the Centre's approach and that of the Odisha government to the cause?

The entire disability sector has a positive buzz about the Prime Minister's initiatives for the welfare of the divyang. We are all filled with joy to see the new Rs 2,000 notes, which are disabled-friendly. The chief minister has also announced schemes for us. He is also extremely considerate towards the disabled. But, the officers and government mechanism have failed to carry out the programmes announced by the chief minister. One must ask why the Bhimbhoi and Banishree schemes are not being properly implemented. Why are students with disabilities running from pillar to post to get their scholarships?

The state government has introduced websites for the disabled and also launched a helpline. Are these of any great help?

I am aware that they have a helpline. But ask 15 of your friends to call up the helpline at different times, you will get to know how it is functioning. You check the website yourself, you will get to know about it, its contents and whether it is being updated. I have already earned a number of enemies and don't want to make more with my frank opinions.

Do you feel that your mission has accomplished something with the creation of a separate department for the disabled?

It is a big step forward. The visibility of the department has definitely increased because of this, but not its impact. The implementation of various schemes is still very poor. Officers in the department, from the state level to the block level, need to be sensitised about the issue of disability, otherwise nothing will come out of it. I was invited to give a talk to 350 IAS probationers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration to sensitise them about persons with disabilities. After they return to the field and take up their jobs, they will certainly have a soft corner for the issue concerning disability.

After I came back, I submitted a proposal suggesting why the same could not be done for the officials training in the Gopabandhu Academy of Administration (which trains state civil service officials) here and sensitise our officers on the subject.

We have noticed that persons with disabilities face a lot of problems in entering temples. But the Shree Jagannath Temple in Puri has taken a number of steps, including building ramps. Has it served its purpose?

Indeed, the authorities have taken some measures. But it's not enough. The wooden chairs they have for carrying persons with disabilities are dangerous. They should have belts attached to them. They should modify the design of these chairs as done by the Lingraj Temple. There are also other problems which need to be resolved.

RIGHTS CRUSADER

An inspiration for the youth and a crusader for the differently-abled, 53-year-old Sruti Mohapatra has made the Anjali Children's Festival a much-acclaimed annual event, a one-of-its-kind event in the country with focus on physically-challenged children

• While doing her MPhil in developmental biology, she qualified for Group A Allied Services

• A major road accident cut short her ambitions

• Since then, she has been confined to a wheelchair

•  In 2001, she launched Project Anjali that gave an outlet to the creative side of special children, which later found participation from students from several mainstream schools

• Sruti runs her own organisation, Swabhimaan, that conducts the Anjali camp every year during Children's Day on November 14

WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN HAD YOU NOT BEEN AN ACTIVIST?

Civil services could have been an alternative career choice for me. I was doing my MPhil when I qualified for the Allied Services. However, a major accident in April 1987 left me quadriplegic and I was not allowed to join work. But, all that is behind me now.